Harlem 1948, Ralph Ellison, Gordon Parks and the photo essay

Parks and Ralph Ellison collaborated to show that Harlem is everywhere.

Gordon Parks, Off on My Own (Harlem, New York), 1948, gelatin silver print (The Art Institute of Chicago, Amanda Taub Veazie Acquisition Fund, 2016.125) © The Gordon Parks Foundation. From "Harlem is Nowhere," a collaborative project between Gordon Parks and Ralph Ellison. Special thanks to Michal Raz-Russo, Sarah E. Alvarez, The Gordon Parks Foundation, the Ralph and Fanny Ellison Charitable Trust, and the Art Institute of Chicago.

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Key points

  • The mass media’s portrayal of urban spaces like Harlem in the years after World War II often reinforced negative stereotypes of African Americans. Photographer Gordon Parks and writer Ralph Ellison wanted to offer corrective views of African American life in the popular press. This led them to collaborate on the 1948 essay “Harlem is Nowhere.”
  • The text of the essay focused on the Lafargue Clinic, the first non-segregated psychiatric clinic in New York. Ellison argued that segregation and racism were having negative psychological effects on African Americans, and that problems present in Harlem represented larger systemic issues across America. These are issues he would tackle in his famous book, Invisible Man.
  • The photographs by Parks were not meant to illustrate the essay. They present their own visual argument about the tensions around race in both Harlem and the United States more broadly by portraying the psychological and societal difficulties that were a daily part of the African American experience.

Go deeper

Learn more about this photo from the Art Institute of Chicago

Visit the website of the Gordon Parks Foundation

Read an excerpt from “Harlem is Nowhere”

Learn more about the collaboration between Parks and Ellison from the Art Institute of Chicago

Learn about the development of suburbs in the post-war era

See some of Parks’s photographs for LIFE Magazine and others

Read an interview with Gordon Parks

Learn about the life of Ralph Ellison

See videos and other primary sources about Invisible Man


More to think about

Re-read the caption that Ellison wrote for this photograph:

“Who am I? Where am I? How do I come to be? Behind endless walls of his ghetto, man searches for social identity. Refugees from southern feudalism, many Negroes wander dazed in the mazes of northern ghettos, the displaced persons of American democracy.”

Which details of Parks’s image seem specifically addressed by Ellison’s caption? How do you think Ellison’s choice of words affects the way we interpret the photograph?


 

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