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The cycle of life has many faces, but none is as striking as the faces of poverty. I stumbled upon Gordon Parks’ brilliant photographic work in Life-Time(1). Gordon Parks was an ordinary African-American who did extraordinary things the moment he purchased his first camera(2) for $12.50. The only way to describe the sights and silent cries emitting from these magnificent scenes Parks created in “A Beaten Family in Rio Slum – Freedom’s Fearful Foe: Poverty,” is hurt. Immediately, I began to write.
For some reason, poverty was Black America for me. The shocking revelation boldly manifested itself as I flipped from one photograph to another, expecting, but not finding one picture of a poor African-American family. From my perspective, I never envisioned a mother of another color with a calico rag wrapped around her head, her eyes dark, her nails filthy, cooking a watery soup over an open fire for eight babies. I sometimes saw a heavyset mother stooped over a porch washing clothes, wringing them by hand, flapping the garments in the wind before hanging them on a clothesline to dry, always African-American.
I had to take another look at Parks’ work, read snippets of the article again, before I realized the scene was Rio de Janeiro. When I think of Rio, I think of a well-deserved vacation on warm beaches. I never ever think of poverty.
Gordon Parks’ enchanting work dispels your need for a vacation and rips at your prejudices by pulling you into each scene, making you feel emotions buried deep within. The cold, gritty, dark rooms emit loneliness you can’t escape. Soles of dirty feet hang limp off edges of worn mattresses. A young boy diligently straightens his bed of straw, a bed that takes up his entire room. There’s no chifferobe to hang his clothes, because there are no extra garments to hang. He has no shoes. As I study this photograph, I wonder where he’s going after he makes his bed. Is there a school nearby? Is he a beggar on the streets of Rio de Janeiro? Is he working in his father’s stead?
In another photograph, at the top of a lone hill, enshrined in clouds, is the Christ the Redeemer Statue. Rooftops serve as stairs leading to the foot of the statue where hope seems remote and dark.
Gordon Parks stirs me beyond comfort when he exposes the dying. They seem to die without hope, hoping to just get on with dying. Do they wonder why death is taking so long? Their faces are resigned to it. But the children around them don’t understand it.
Babes eating from the hands of babes tug at your heart strings. Ribs scaling the abdomens of young children no doubt is the effects of hunger. They eat porridge. There’s no meat. No meal supplements. Babies have no warm milk.
It’s a normal day occurrence for a child to retrieve his water from a foothill, tote it upward, and pour it into a pot in preparation of their next meal. There’s no running water. No refrigeration. No electricity. And no guarantee the water retrieved is free of disease.
Throughout each and every photograph, there is always someone taking care of someone else. No one seems alone, not even the dying. A mother carries three gallons of water on her head, her two little ones in tow. Six or seven children are all in one bed. A boy fetches water for his family. Another feeds his baby sister.
Theses faces of poverty remind us of what we left behind–Family. Though we hate to admit it, we don’t want to relive the effects poverty had on our lives. For all that poverty does to the soul, it consistently melds the human spirit of many into one.
We have forgotten how single mothers worked at laundromats on hard concrete floors to bring home $1.50/hour for a nine-hour day during the 1950s and 60s. Or how momma scrubbed hotel floors and toilets, then go home and give their children a slice of crusted bread plastered with sugar, mayonnaise, butter, or Cane syrup for their evening meal. Rent was due. Though hungry, family hunkered down and got through it.
Maybe we forgot how daddy worked in refineries, did most of the back-breaking work and never got the promotion and pay raise he deserved. You remember how daddy whispered to your mother during the night, telling her how Mr. Henry took credit for his new idea, then getting the recognition and promotion your daddy longed for. As a child, you remember how your daddy sat at the dinner table, his black eyes staring at nothing in particular. You’d talk to him, but later he’d pat you on the head and say “that’s good, son,” but you knew he hadn’t heard a word you said. Now that you’re grown, you know daddy was lost somewhere between feeding and educating you. Taking care of his family never left his mind.
Across America, there is a face of poverty that is going unattended. Most of us have what we need: clothes, food, central heat and air. Yet, young mass murderers are killing because they’re fighting loneliness every day of their lives. Ostracized by others, they are left to feel worthless and unloved. In high schools, somewhere out there, girls are cat-fighting for popularity status by way of character assassination of individuals who can’t fight for themselves. Fathers have run away from home. Mothers are struggling to find a good father, and if they aren’t careful, they end up with someone else’s runaway daddy.
We seem hungry for something we can’t touch, something fulfilling and long-lasting. We’re bumping into walls, flailing our hands in an effort to find that one thing to ease life’s aches and pains.
Gordon Parks’ depiction of poverty leaves no doubt what those faces are looking for. They want hope. These faces of poverty want to grab ahold of a firm line that has a hot, home-cooked meal attached to it. They want a cool, clean cup of water and to sleep by a warm fire. They want the sun to shine through the dark crevices of their lives. They need someone to give them a tight embrace, a warm smile.
With all our technical gadgets, warm homes, full bellies, is it possible we want the very things we’ve left behind? Family. Scoldings from a good and decent father. Daddy helping you fix another old clunker. Smells of mother’s home-cooked meals flowing through the house. Family. To sit together on a front porch in an old rocking chair or porch swing and enjoy the evening sun. Stroll hand-in-hand along the edge of a beach. To laugh at a terrible joke. To sip coffee or tea, in no hurry to go nowhere. Maybe it’s as simple as sitting together at the dinner table with your family–your husband at the head of the table, you at the other end, children squabbling over nothing, everyone happy, smiling, sharing.
Rich or poor, ooh, how we all long to experience family again.
 Life: A Beaten Family in Rio Slum – Freedom’s Fearful Foe: Poverty, Photographed for Life by Gordon Parks
 Wikipedia – Voigtländer Brillant – definition of camera used by Gordon Parks
As I delved into history in search of little treasures, I stumbled across a neat write-up about the role Africans played in England. You don’t see much of this and I find it fascinating! I’m convinced more and more each day that we are all cut from the same piece of fabric. Our different cultures are a little bit twisted, but we’re basically the same. Okay, maybe I’m narrow-minded.
Guess I’ve ranted enough. Here are two of many websites that stirred my interest and got my historical juices flowing.
Enjoy it. Hate it. Or leave it. Up to you. I just had to share this. Maybe my real intent is to reach those of you who have young children and encourage you to not waste the years. Become a history buff then pass that enthusiasm on to your children. Go beyond the history books. Stretch and challenge yourself. Challenge your children. Learning is exciting.
White, Black, Brown or Green, I looove history.
Donna B. Comeaux
Freelance Writer, Novelist, Poet
This coastal town along Florida’s shore
known today for its car races, the railroad’s no more
is a resort of sort for the famous and rich
it’s become a place to buy whatever you wish.
Its sandy beaches are warm and wonderful
the atmosphere is happy and most delightful
but if you look a little closer beyond all the array
you’ll find history here more rewarding than play.
Once there was a young girl in 1904
that Daytona Beach produced more fertile than soil
here she cultivated an education true to the core
that made us all rich and made our minds soar.
Fifteen of seventeen, on a happy July 10th
On a Mayesville, South Carolina farm in 1875
with her bright eyes wide open right from the start
Samuel and Patsy were proud of their child.
Inspired at church by a missionary man
her eyes sailed afar toward African land
but the Presbyterian Board said “no” to her plan
and put a close to the dream she once had.
Her body stout, straight, not very tall
her skin as black and shiny as nightfall
Mary McLeod Bethune carved her way through
when the mission chose, for better or worse, other things to do.
Defeat was never a part of her scheme of things
there were other ways to fulfill her dream
it didn’t take her long at all to succeed
in fulfilling her quest through her own people’s needs.
It was a school she had hoped one day to build
then it spread to a hospital upon a nearby hill
so she began her campaign with a painstaking smile,
a handshake, and a bike that she cycled for miles.
Her campaign brought no fortune, but plenty of fame
to this very day, the world knows her by name
she started on a landfill, in a shack with hard dirt for a floor
no wallpaper, or desks, no glass as a pane,
no heat from a stove, just determined young brains.
Still she wooed wads of green from the tightest of grips
from the likes of Gamble, Rockefeller and White
she fed hungry minds and kept them from bore
she sounded liberty’s bell and embraced freedom’s door.
Reform was bitter for those who fought change
even the Red Cross was reluctant to lend her a hand
the Defense Department was a mountain to climb
but voter’s rights were the easiest, they gave in with time.
She never ever was concerned for only herself
or of fame, fortune, or this earth’s perishable wealth
cardboard became her insoles, worn socks laced her toes
a frayed shawl wrapped her shoulders to warm her from cold.
She loved us, so bravely she taught us the ropes
she determined to stir us, revive in us hope
she desired a new life beyond racial divides
our first lesson learned, to become colorblind.
She saw in us humans one complete race
no black man, no white man, no pigments to trace
not even a hint of a border to keep
and separate us into clans which offer no peace.
“Invest in a human soul,” she had once chimed
put your money in banks of precious mankind
“Enter to Learn” and “Depart to Serve”
give to the people whose voice thirst to be heard.
So, come, vacation here for awhile
but leave behind more than a tired painted smile
loosen your pocketbook from your tight wadded hand
be content that you fed one more soul in this land.
We stand tall and salute you Ms. Mary Bethune
just as the prejudice cabby did one afternoon
See, he refused her a ride in his tired ragged cab
so she withstood him to his face and her pardon he begged.
She lectured and versed him in the real facts of life
her goal was to change his hatred and strife
by the time he had driven her where she’d depart
he’d acquired a new look at his self-centered heart.
As she left from his sight, going her way
she did not wait to hear what he would say
yet, he smiled and tilted his hat toward her way
admiring how swift she reformed him that day.
The influence Ms. Mary bestowed on them all
overshadowed the rich, encouraged the small
you can’t pour her values into fine cups of clay
for her merit indeed can no longer be weighed.
written by Donna B. Comeaux
No duplication allowed
Revised February 25, 2014
Gordon Parks was our first African-American Film Director. He directed Shaft in 1971. In 1969 he wrote The Learning Tree, his autobiography, which he transformed into a movie. He also composed music, and was a civil rights activist. Gordon Roger Alexander Buchanan Parks was 93 when he died on March 7, 2006.
Please visit http://ezinearticles.com/?Poverty—The-Stirrings-of-Gordon-Parks-Work-of-Art&id=8039797 to see my latest article entitled “Poverty – The Stirrings of Gordon Parks’ Work of Art.” Below the article is a link to Gordon Parks’ black and white photographs he created for Life Magazine many years ago. These black and white photographs will make the discomforts of our lives seem frivolous.