Test your knowledge with a quiz
Parks, Off On My Own
- 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.
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?