GORDON PARKS’ SOUL IMAGES

As a Black History Month slides quietly into the end of its short month (hey, we did get an extra day), just a few thoughts:
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Though the above  picture illustrates the oxymoron that was the Jim Crow south, I still love it, for it reminds me of home. It reminds me of my mother and her friends in those times when they weren’t restricted by work clothes, times when they would dress to the nines.

I remember those hot summer Sunday mornings when my mother would wrestle herself into that obligatory long line girdle as sweat streamed down her face.

I remember the fancy suits she wore, the strappy high heeled shoes and the oh so necessary church hats. Oh, those church hats! We cannot forget those church hats, those regal crowns worn proudly with alacrity, attitude and panache.

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Before pants were de rigueur, shirtwaist dresses were always appropriate when a lady went shopping. The woman in the first photo appears to be wearing a shirtwaist dress. I loved them when I was a teen-ager; I love them now, except my waist will no longer accommodate those tightly cinched belts. . . but I digress.

A few months ago, someone posted a Facebook status about the beauty of the picture and the ugliness of the sign. I got that, but all I could see was the classic beauty of the woman as well as her best dressed child, neither of whom appear to be burdened by the weight of the times (at least not in this moment). That was the irony of those times; you could see beauty and ugliness in the same moment.

Another Gordon Parks picture popped up in another Facebook status and this time I added my own two cents to the thread.

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The women appear to be seated in a waiting room, perhaps a bus station or a train station. Their expressions do not tell us much. Each woman is somewhat stoic in her position, giving no clue to any internal musing. We can assume, I suppose, that the only reason the black woman is in that waiting room is because she is the “nanny” to the child (I thought about using “mammy,” but that would send me off on another tangent and I am really trying to stick to a point).

The status was not that of a Facebook friend but it popped up on my page, I presume, because of a mutual Facebook friend. Their comments, of course, dealt with the incongruity reflected in the picture juxtaposed against the schizophrenic background of the times.

But I did not fall in step with the their chain of thought in that particular thread. Instead, I recalled another memory of those days, days when I lived with my grandparents in rural backroads Texas.

“What can never be understood unless you witnessed it first hand are the friendships that were forged between employer and employee as the years passed by. No, social lines were never crossed in those Jim Crow days, but the so-called nanny became sounding board and confidante for the often frustrated employer. Yes, they trusted their right to superiority but they also intuitively connected with the humanity in the employed. I saw it with my grandmother and mother, both of whom worked as maids for white women, in whose presence I could observe and learn the wisdom of grace.

The movie, “Places Of The Heart” was on last night. Though set in a time long before my birth, it takes me back home without bitterness or rancor because my sense of self was fine tuned in that crucible that formed the souls of my grandmother and mother.

My soul looks back in wonder……”

I was simply stating a truth from my past. The following is one of the responses to my truth:

“Not necessarily, Donnanotdiva. As a child, I watched one grandmother treat her maid as a non human and the other, treat hers as a friend. If we hadn’t had our Elizabeth taking care of us during WW2 while my father was a POW and mother had to work, I don’t know how we would have survived.”

My response to that response:

“I have no doubt but that there were those “employers” who treated the help as the inferiors they believed them to be. I am saying that my personal experience as a child growing up in the Jim Crow South was that I  witnessed first hand the bonding as women between the two groups. I was privy to the conversations of the women in my community as they spoke of those relationships. As time moved on, I watched those work relationships turn into friendships that outlasted their pasts but were forged in those pasts. The issue is we so often point out the evil without acknowledging that there were those relationships that transcended the times or even the upbringing of both sides. I am a realist who sees things as they are but who also knows there are many back stories unspoken and unheralded, stories that go beyond the too often superficiality of liberal speak.”

Then, someone else decided to chime in (perhaps with a soupçon of sarcasm?):

“[E]veryone[,] I’d say most[,] don’t think the way you do. Most were treated less than human. You make it sound like a beautiful place.”

Sighhhhh. . .

“I would be the last person to tell you it was always beautiful place. But, what I will say is that I was allowed to see a little of the humanity possible in those relationships. I know the inequities firsthand, the brilliant grandfather who caught the truck every weekday morning to go to the cotton field, the father from Mississippi whose prior occupation listed on his enlistment papers is farm laborer, a euphemism for sharecropper, a community marginalized and stigmatized as “boy” and “girl” rather than ma’am” and “sir.” Yes, I lived through it all, the first generation to step into integration and still had to prove myself by working twice as hard as they continued to doubt. No, it was not all roses and sunshine but it refined and fine tuned me to not color every experience with a broad brush of bitterness. I still see the inequality and inequity and I am very proactive about telling my story, both sides, but I am also grateful for those glimpses into possibility.”

There you have it, my “ah ha” revelation. My Jim Crow past not only developed in me a strong sense of self-awareness as well as a heart for the village. It also imbued me with grace, mercy and compassion. If there is any residual bitterness, it reveals itself in those moments when I am once again reminded that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

LIFT EVERY VOICE AND SING!

 

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