Through Gordon Parks’ Photographs, I Found My Beauty Outside the White Gaze

In his 1956 segregation series, Parks paired Black women's elegance with pain. Their strength inspired me to discover my own.

In DepthIn Depth
Through Gordon Parks’ Photographs, I Found My Beauty Outside the White Gaze

I remember seeing a black and white photo of Diana Ross surrounded by her daughters Tracee, Chudney, and Rhonda, taken sometime in the late ‘80s or early ‘90s. All of Diana’s girls struck a smize, eyes piercing the camera with hair quaffed, beautiful curls, and oh, the lean of their shoulders, all of them giving cover star energy. I discovered the photograph while scrolling through old library issues of Vogue when I was in my early teens, and it marked the first time I had seen a famous family of Black women captured in the absence of the white gaze. There in that moment the women were not fetishized or stereotyped, but posed with grace at a time when multi-generational photos of Black women weren’t widely spread.

I hoarded issues of Vogue, Elle, and Marie Claire in my bedroom, searching for more faces that looked like mine, but I kept coming up empty, so I studied the photo of Diana instead. Tracee reminded me of my Aunt Yvette so much, their shared features a long nose and wide eyes, silly yet stern mannerisms, both tall with wide hips…turn your head and you’d swear Tracee was my aunt. Diana had my grandmother’s eye for fashion and detail. This very well could be my kin. Diana’s daughters were fierce, and you could tell each felt that confidence, that self-assurance, to their bones. In interviews Tracee has said, “There’s a way that my mother navigates her life, and her own being-ness. That, as a reflection, is empowering. That gives me the courage to make my own choices.” That kind of image does something to a 12-year-old mind. What I was witnessing was a passing down of elegance. Through their strength, I was possible, and enough.

It is 1956, 10 years before my eldest sister will be born, and Shirley Anne Kirksey is waiting outside the Saenger Theatre in Mobile, Alabama, in a white lace party dress, her aunt Joanne Thornton Wilson next to her in chiffon and patent leather dress shoes. It seems that they have tickets, but Joanne refuses to subject herself to the humiliation of a “colored entrance.” Her bra strap dips, but she lets it hang. She is tired of the racist bullshit she’s had to encounter and is ready to go. Too fly to let this incident dull their shine, they make their way to the ice cream parlor—at least, that’s how I imagine it in my head. Unbeknownst to me, for Easter my older sister would wear a polyester lace dress similar to Shirley’s, and my mother a similar outfit and short hairstyle as Joanne, 23 years ahead.

“Drinking Fountains,” Mobile, Alabama, 1956 Photo:Gordon Parks. Copyright: Courtesy of and copyright The Gordon Parks Foundation.

Years go by, and the Diana Ross photo hasn’t left my mind. I am in my mid-20s, and as I continue to search for multi-generational photos of Black women, I am flooded with the “Colored Entrance” photo by Gordon Parks of Joanne and Shirley. Why have I never seen this before? It was the first time since Diana and her girls that I felt something from a photo that wasn’t tethered to Black pain or death. For hours, I stared at the image until something hit me: Shirley and Joanne looked exactly like my sister and my mother in the late ‘70s. The expression of Shirley’s face—looking ahead toward something greater. The posture of Joanne like: “You can shut me out, but you can’t keep me down.” But what captivated me the most was the fact that Joanne and her niece were dressed to the nines—the descendants of slaves, yet fashionable and unstoppable.

“The audacity to wear white to the theater in Mobile, Alabama… What? Can you imagine being that stunning while being othered and attacked in a place of lynching and segregation?” Aundre Larrow, portrait photographer and Parks enthusiast, told me recently, when I decided to ask Parks’ friends, colleagues, and admirers what made his renderings of Black women so special. “I mean, their dedication to beauty was impeccable, but it says something about the refusal to be defeated.”

“their dedication to beauty was impeccable, but it says something about the refusal to be defeated.”

The “Colored Entrance” photo—which Parks actually named “Department Store”—is part of Parks’ infamous 1956 color-photo segregation series, which he took while on assignment for Life (although it didn’t appear in the original Life spread). Parks, the first (self-taught) Black fashion photographer at Vogue before he was the first Black photographer at Life, was sent to Alabama to document the ordinary lives of Black southern families and segregation, though, ironically enough, his editors didn’t think there was adequate segregation in Alabama to do a full spread and were doubtful Parks could deliver on the assignment, according to the Gordon Parks Foundation. Not only did Parks pull it off, but he returned with a nuanced look at a multigenerational Black rural family, racial inequity, and beauty—photographing Black women and their families with an interior and exterior eye. “The shot is almost like you caught them in action,” said Larrow. “He had the masterful ability to capture images like candids that you need the story behind. I mean, he was a documentarian and photojournalist after all.”

See, that’s what Gordon Parks had the power to do—to make his viewers speak of his subjects like characters from a reel of film, to make us deeply care about the people, John Edwin Mason, associate professor at UVA Arts and Science’s Department of History, told me. You wanted to know the story behind these women as if this were real life, because they were real women, not a cluster of models.

In my early 20s, I didn’t know that this photo was part of a series, and that Shirley and Joanne were family, but Shirley and Joanne were what I had been searching for since I was 12 years old: a visual language for Black women’s resilience. Nor, apparently, was I alone. “Department Store” showed up in an AD “Open Door” video with Alicia Keys and Swizz Beatz, who own the largest collection of Gordon Parks, in November of 2021. Earlier this year, Esquire published a story about Shirley’s mother Allie Lee, who attempted to hold Life accountable for what her family faced after Parks’ photos were published. To date, Parks’ friend and photographer Michael Cheers, a professor of photojournalism and magazine journalism at San Jose State University, said “Department Store” has been repurposed, shared, featured, and searched millions of times by other folks. Presumably, they too were drawn by Parks’ ability to show that pain could be paired with sophistication, that the sting of racism wouldn’t erase moments of tenderness.

“Ondria Tanner and Her Grandmother Window-shopping,” Mobile, Alabama, 1956 Photo:Gordon Parks. Copyright: Courtesy of and copyright The Gordon Parks Foundation.

“I had an aunt who worked in a sweater factory, and she walked outside the house dressed like she was going to the office: fancy skirt, beautiful beaded sweater, jacket, briefcase,” Dr. Deborah Willis, chair of the photography department at New York University and friend to Parks before he passed in 2006, told me. “Fashion for Gordon was a biography—it told the story of a person’s life.”

There’s a story behind every image in the segregation series, each doing its part to answer the question: What does it look like when Black women are othered and yet refuse to allow that othering to destroy them? The series became a rejection of the status quo, a denial to be deemed less than, and it irrevocably ruptured the way we view American photography today. Photographs like “Ondria Tanner and Her Grandmother Window-shopping” and “Department Store” speak to the prevalence of prejudice that still ricochets as our power is threatened, not just throughout the Deep South, but through the fabric of American culture. They help us confront hard realities, like who is allowed on the inside of luxury, and who is permitted to be beautiful and fractured at the same time.

The segregation series featured the Thornton and Causey family nucleus and extended family members, from two grandparents to 19 grandchildren. Gordon’s assumed technique was to capture the family doing everyday activities—going to the playground, shopping, getting ice cream—whether posed or candidly in a way that made the viewer feel as though they were taking the journey with them through Jim Crow-era Mobile and Shady Grove, Alabama. It struck a chord, said Cheers. Where most believed rural Alabama was full of country bumpkins and unintelligent, uncouth people, here we see a family of established teachers, dressmakers, farmers, and mill workers, all well-dressed as they made their way in the world despite efforts to hold Black folks below water. We see the matriarch and patriarch of the Thornton family as in “American Gothic,” doing rural activities yet looking regal. We see images of Black women’s beauty juxtaposed against a racist backdrop, the very definition of: What you thought would kill me, can’t/won’t.

“Fashion for Gordon was a biography—it told the story of a person’s life.”

“The posing and styling of these women says a lot about race, class, gender at the time,” said Shelton Boyd-Griffith, a fashion editor at Essence. “It’s evident in each photograph—the wrinkled dress, the bra strap, the fancy clothes of the children playing in the mud outside the fence all say something about agency in the world.”

Through Ondria Tanner and her grandmother window-shopping in Mobile, I can imagine the sting of not being able to enter the whites-only department stores. As they looked onto the white mannequins, although wrinkled from the suspected car or bus ride, the grandmother was stylish, her clothes fitting her like a glove. But there is more to the story here than segregation. “Black women in the ‘50s were often dressmakers and would window shop to study patterns and stitchwork so they could repeat the same dress at home,” said Willis. With that knowledge, I went back to the photo and could see Parks’ brilliant ability to show Black women making a way despite society’s determination to push them to the margins.

“Think about the women we grew up with in church. Chinchilla hats—they knew they were part of a new generation of women that were committed to making a statement about being fashionable,” said Willis. “Women worked as maids in pearls, cardigan sweaters, and shoes. They were dressed.”

“Untitled,” Shady Grove, Alabama, 1956 Photo:Gordon Parks. Copyright: Courtesy of and copyright The Gordon Parks Foundation.

Parks, who was regarded as a groundbreaking fashion photographer, knew the art of making women look beautiful; for him that was easy. The task was showing the multiplicity of the self—particularly of Black women, who were not afforded the same framing as white women—where we had been made to be monoliths.

There is a picture of my mother holding me in church in the late ‘80s, her in a patterned-pleated dress and me a crying baby in a white christening bonnet and itchy lace, exactly like Parks’ “Untitled” photograph in the segregation series, where a mother in her blue Sunday dress is tightly holding her baby with a scowl on her face. Here we see how art shifts perception. The angry Black woman motif is turned on its head to say, “No, you must ask permission before stepping into my inner space.” Here the lens could be wielded by a white person, or any unwanted intruder. When I see this photo I am reminded of how Diana held her girls with a steadfast grip that said, “Hands off. These children are mine.” That “don’t touch our hair, don’t step to us sideways” posture of protection. I saw that same look in the eyes of my mother in photos of me and my older siblings, and a grandmother’s protective hand across Ondria Tanner’s chest. Parks seemed to know anger had a place in fashion photography. Here humanity and flaw equate to beauty and strength.

The author with her mother Photo:Courtesy of author

At age 10, in the ‘90s in Gary, Indiana, I wasn’t finding many images of Black women on the covers of fashion magazines. We had Iman, Tyra Banks, Naomi Campbell, Beverly Johnson, and Grace Jones, who weren’t natural or curvy, nor could I see myself in their modelesque features. I wondered who these women were when they weren’t manicured—did they have children? Families? The few familiar images of Black matriarchs with their Black daughters I came across were fictional and on-screen: The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, A Different World and Cosby, Family Matters and Sister, Sister.

But back at home, we took pictures of what unfiltered Black beauty truly looked like, although I didn’t realize it at the time. I remember getting ready for banquets and plays, primped and polished in our Sunday best, gloves and tailored dresses, matching hats, hair laid, pressed curls—we were the chic-epitome of poise. This was my Black fashion legacy. My icons were everyday women: mothers and daughters, domestic workers, Black deaconesses and beauticians, with their extravagant hats and long nails, big hair and finger waves. Like the women Parks captured decades before I was born, though I wouldn’t uncover the connection for years. As Mason said, “There’s a humiliation the grandmother outside the clothing store feels, but here is where we reclaim it. It is through our self-fashioning that we regain what they attempted to steal from us.”

When you are a tall, awkward, curly-haired Black girl, you look for your reflection often and land on the Black woman at the bus stop in pinstripe and polyester, or dress-up with your mother in the mirror. At 13, gazing at my mother in the vanity as she put on pearls was my way of image making, of mentally turning pages of the magazine I created in her closet. Silk, chiffon, lace. You measure your beauty against what you see most, and what I saw most was Claudia Schiffer and Cindy Crawford, so I cherished these moments. How fraught it must have been to raise three Black kids in the ‘70s and ‘80s, to raise two curvy, natural girls at a time when, despite Queen Latifah and MC Lyte, Black women were still seen as undesirable and unvalued.

“Untitled,” Shady Grove, Alabama, 1956 Photo:Gordon Parks. Copyright: Courtesy of and copyright The Gordon Parks Foundation

Where were the mainstream images of Black girls like me getting their hair pressed and curls washed, Black women rubbing cocoa butter on their skin and spraying perfume? Mundane tasks to the naked eye, but rituals for Black women. I craved a sort-of normalization of my culture, and also representation of our femininity and elegance. Diana taught me to look for the powerful (but rare) photographs that centered the ferocity of Black celebrities, but I’d yet to find the everyday beauty of Black women that Parks had captured 30 years before I was even born.

So I studied old photos of my mother with Phylicia Rashad’s flipped-out hair, pressed and blowing in the wind. I tried on her red lipstick and scarves, played dress up in brocade dresses, anything to feel elegant. This was it. I had my mother’s, aunt’s, and grandmother’s eyes, their nose, their mouth. It was through their faces I’d find the resemblance I needed.

Diana Ross spends some time with her daughters backstage at the Palace Theater in New York June 14, 1976. Photo:Bettmann (Getty Images)

Today, now that I am 35, and have lived in and out the South for over 14 years, I understand what Parks was trying to communicate about beauty, brokenness, and its connection to fashion. I am inundated with images of Black women facing off against oppression in mainstream visuals. I can see that same poise amidst the pain, the upturn of the lip in “Airline Terminal” and “Untitled” as in Beyoncé’s snarl as she hangs out the car window in Lemonade, dressed in chinchilla. “The color play, styling, posing, and composition are all found in Lemonade, and other generational photos of Beyoncé and the women in her family,” said Boyd-Griffith. Parks’ “Willie Causey and Family” is in Beyonce on the porch with generations of Black women. His “Boy with June Bug” is in her laying on the grass.

“Gordon’s work lives on today in his protégés Jamel Shabazz, Doug Barrett, Eli Reed, Michael Cheers, and Andrew F. Scott,” said Kirk Sharp, executive director of the Gordon Parks Museum, who also pointed to the influence of “Boy with June Bug” on Kendrick Lamar’s “Element.,” Lovecraft Country recreating the “Colored Entrance” scene, and Parks’ work appearing in And Just Like That. Countless contemporary photographers like Carrie Mae Weems, Kwame Brathwaite, and Malick Sidibé are emboldened to carry on Gordon’s work by capturing heightened Black beauty and the stain systemic oppression has left on family legacies, Boyd-Griffith said. Through images of mother-daughter duos like Jada Pinkett and Willow Smith, Lisa Bonet and Zoë Kravitz, and Venus, Serena, and their families, all making fashion statements against the backdrop of painful family hardships—a juggling act that Black women are so used to—we hear Park reverberate. He engaged in a conversation with generations of Black women, opening the door to their confidence and pride. “We were sophisticated, even when raising white babies, working as their housekeepers,” said fashion photographer James Ellis, another of Parks’ friends.

In a metaphor for the complicated reclamation of lost heritage, two hundred photos Parks originally took for his segregation series were lost for over 50 years, only rediscovered in the Gordon Parks Foundation’s basement in 2012; one of the rediscovered photographs was “Department Store.” Since their rediscovery, photographers have tried to capture the same multiplicity of Black women—how their fashion intertwines with resilience. Parks, originally from Kansas, knew the perils of growing up in a rural southern town like his subjects. As he once said, “I picked up a camera because it was my choice of weapons against what I hated most about the universe: racism, intolerance, poverty.” Gordon, too, knew something about passing down grace. His fondness for photographing Black women derived from his deep connection with his mother back home, Cheers and Willis told me. We had that in common, Gordon and I.

I wish I would have had Gordon’s photos as a Black child in search of somewhere to call myself beautiful. Now, I see, I was all along. My beauty lies in my mother’s ability to live and thrive in a dangerous time and still be devastatingly gorgeous. It is a true skill to be beautiful in a sea of bullets.

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