It began as a challenge. Righteous anger propelled it forward. It moved many of Life magazine's readers to acts of generosity. Yet it ended in tragedy. What should have been a triumph became instead a reminder that the law of unintended consequences can exert its force in unimaginably heart-breaking ways. This is the story of "A Harlem Family," one of the most powerful, and most troubling, photo-essays that Gordon Parks ever produced.
Life, 8 March 1968. [Photo: Gordon Parks.]
The challenge that set the essay in motion came from Philip Kunhardt, a Life editor who had become one of Parks' trusted friends. As Parks recalled in his memoir, A Hungry Heart, it happened at the end of the long hot summer of 1967, a summer of urban uprisings in black America. Kunhardt wanted Parks to tell him and, by extension, Life's overwhelmingly white readership, why African Americans were "rioting in the big cities practically every month?"
There was no question that Parks would accept the assignment. After all, turning out topical photo-essays was part of his job, and he was good at it. His essays on social issues were among the most compelling to ever appear in Life's pages. More crucially, however, it was his mission. Early in his career, he had chosen to channel his anger at racism into his photography. The camera became his weapon of choice in the struggle for racial justice, and he embraced -- eagerly embraced -- the burden of showing whites what it meant to be black. Life, with its tens of millions of mostly white readers, provided him with the ideal platform.
Life/Alfred Eisenstaedt: Gordon Parks, c. 1970.
This particular assignment came with an additional burden, however. Having found a family that was willing to cooperate on the story -- Norman and Bessie Fontenelle and their children -- Parks admitted in A Hungry Heart that he couldn't avoid asking himself a troublesome question: "Was I about to exploit their despair?"
The contrast between his comfortable life in suburban Connecticut and "the misery of the Fontenelles' cold surroundings" worried Parks. He found himself "sitting before a fireplace with a glass of wine, observing the smoldering logs," knowing that while "a lifetime of beautiful moments awaited me here before my hearth, the Fontenelles would be imprisoned in their misery forever." The words were truer than he could possibly have known.
Parks quieted his doubts by engaging the Fontenelles emotionally -- a connection that began during the month, in late 1967, that he spent photographing the family and that lasted for years afterward -- and by reminding himself of the essay's larger purpose.
Life, 8 March 1968, pp. 46-47. [Click on any image to see a larger version.]
"A Harlem Family" appeared in Life in March 1968, the first article in "A Special Section on Race and Poverty." The editors' introduction set the tone:
The Negro and the cities constitute the nation's most alarming domestic problem. Yet, except when violence flares up, people ignore its appalling realities.
...For a generation, the interlocking problems of race and poverty in America have grown steadily worse, despite a score of laws and a hundred government programs and a thousand good intentions. ...Still, incredibly, complacent whites and an obdurate Congress find ways to avoid and evade the problem.
The articles were sobering, designed to shock white Americans out of their complacency, while still leaving room for hope. A story by Jack Newfield, for instance, examined with guarded optimism the work of anti-poverty agencies and self-help projects in Bedford-Stuyvesant. Another analyzed the President's National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders (the Kerner Commission), which investigated the causes of the 1967 uprisings. Life's headline mirrored the blunt language of the report: "Racism, Not Poverty or Cynicism, Caused the Riots."
For all of the special section's seriousness, it was inevitably part of the mish-mash of high and low, serious and frivolous, that made up every issue of Life. The article that immediately preceded "A Harlem Family," for instance, was a breezy account of the making of Candy, the film version of Terry Southern and Mason Hoffenberg's satirical porn novel about a beautiful, naive 17-year-old girl and the (mostly middle-aged) men who lust after her.
Life also couldn't avoid jarring juxtapositions. Two photos appeared on the two-page spread that opened the special section (above). Both showed little girls. On the right was Ellen Fontenelle, in tears, surrounded by heavy shadows. (This is also the image on the cover.) On the left, an ad for Eli Lilly pharmaceuticals depicted a well-dressed white girl, flying a kite in a bright, bucolic setting. We'll probably never know whether Life's editors were consciously contrasting privileged whiteness with despairing blackness. It's reasonable to imagine, however, that some of the magazine's readers saw it that way.
"A Harlem Family," Life, 8 March 1968, pp. 48-49. [The subject is Norman Fontenelle, Sr.]
Spread over 16 uninterrupted pages, the 25 photos and accompanying text that made up "A Harlem Family," painted an unsettling portrait of a poor family in distress. The photos, of course, were Parks', but so were the words. While it was highly unusual for Life's photographers to write their own stories, Parks had been doing it for several years. For instance, his 1963 article, "What Their Cry Means to Me -- A Negro's Own Evaluation," wan an examination of the rise of the Nation of Islam (or Black Muslims, as the religious group was popularly known). Two years later, after the assassination of Malcolm X, he wrote about his friendship with the fallen leader. (Parks was, in effect, Life's "Mr. Negro." It was a role that he would play for several years to come.)
Throughout "A Harlem Family" there was a fascinating tension between the documentary realism of Parks' photos and the overt subjectivity of his words. The photos were in gritty black and white. They were unflinching in their depiction of the squalor and chaos of the Fontenelles' lives. In the photos, the family never revealed its awareness of the camera's presence. All of this told readers that what they were seeing was the unvarnished, objective truth about the family, rather than a photographer's interpretation. This insistence on objectivity was something "A Harlem Family" shared with all of Life's photo-essays. The magazine's authority rested on its claim that its photos showed readers the truth about the world, and readers usually accepted that claim.
Today, photojournalists (and readers who give the question much thought) acknowledge that making a photograph is much more than a neutral, objective act. This doesn't mean that photos necessarily tell lies -- far from it. It does mean that the photographer's knowledge, experience, and emotions are part of the picture-making process. Good photographers are as honest as possible to the subject, while acknowledging their limitations.
My guess is that Parks, like most photographers of his generation, didn't spend much time worrying about any of this. If pressed, he might have acknowledged the subjectivity of his photos. But he certainly wasn't interested in letting Life's readers in on the secret.
Update, 3 February 2013: I now know that this is wrong. Parks thought long and hard about the question of objectivity, especially when it came to stories that involved highly charged racial issues. For instance, In To Smile in Autumn, a memoir that he published in 1979, he wrote of "the anguish of objectivity." He struggled, that is, to balance his professional obligation "to avoid those intellectual biases that subjectivity can impose on a reporter," while remaining "faithful to my emotions when facing the controversial issues of Black and White." There was no easy resolution to these conflicting claims, but he found ways to live with them. In a later memoir, Voices in a Mirror, he called himself "an objective reporter, but one with a subjective heart."
There was no hiding the subjectivity of "A Harlem Family's" text. The essay opened with a kind of prose-poem in which Parks addressed Life's white readers directly. Making heavy use of "I" and "you," he spoke in the name of black America.
What I want/What I am/What you force me to be/is what you are.
For I am you, staring back from a mirror of poverty and despair, of revolt and freedom. Look at me and know that to destroy me is to destroy yourself. You are weary of the long hot summers. I am tired of the long hungered winters. We are not so far apart as it might seem. There is something about both of us that goes deeper than blood or black and white. It is our common search for a better life, a better world.
Parks wrote in the first-person throughout the essay and quoted the Fontenelles extensively. Although the photos and text spoke in different registers -- objective, on the one hand, subjective, on the other -- the effect was to reinforce the essay's claim to authority -- to truth. Parks was telling readers that he had personally seen and experienced these things. The voices of the Fontenelles reinforced his authority.
The essay's differing registers deepened and enriched it. The result was a photo-essay of astonishing power and intimacy. It's comparable, I think, to Roy DeCarava and Langston Hughes' book-length essay on Harlem, The Sweet Flypaper of Life.
Parks begins the essay with his own introduction to the family. (See pp. 49-50 above with the portrait of Norman Fontenelle, Sr.)
The coming of winter this year was a bad time for Norman Fontenelle, Sr. When I first saw him, he had just been laid off his part-time job as a railway section hand. There was almost no money left, or food.
Four flights up in an old brick building on Eighth Avenue the Fontenelles hang on as best they can. Norman and Bessie, both in their late 30s, and their eight children, a bad-tempered dog named Toe-boy and a cat, who are there really to keep the roaches and rats in check. ...The Fontenelles once also had goldfish. One morning when I got there, Little Richard [one of the children] was pointing at the bowl on the mantel. The heat had gone off the night before and three fish were floating on the surface, dead from the cold.
"A Harlem Family," Life, 8 March 1968, pp. 52-53.
Bessie Fontenelle [above, lower left] appears to be a strong woman, especially in the early part of the day, when she looks younger than 39. As the day wears on, she seem to age with it. By nightfall she has crumbled into herself. "All this needing and wanting is about to drive me crazy," she said to me one evening.
Bessie tries to give warmth to this home, but it remains a prison of endless filth, cluttered with rags and broken furniture.
"A Harlem Family," Life, 8 March 1968, pp.54-55.
Throughout the essay, the photos were as close and as intimate as the text. As Parks revealed the Fontenelles' most private moments and spaces to Life's readers, he and his camera seem to have been almost invisible to the family, as though he had been the proverbial fly-on-the-wall.
In many ways, Bessie was Parks' protagonist.
...Bessie... insists on homework. "Seems the most important thing now is to try to get [the children] some kind of education," she said to me. "That's why I make them keep working. If just one of these kids can make it in some way, I'll be thankful."
"A Harlem Family," Life, 8 March 1968, pp. 56-57.
Hunger is a constant theme in the essay. Parks tells of having bought various of the children lunch at a neighborhood fast-food restaurant.
It was snowing when I left and the flakes were swirling down through an open skylight and piling up in a hallway by their door. On the street below I came up on Norman, Jr., peering through the window of a fish-and-chips joint. "Want some chips?" he asked hopefully. I told him I'd love some. So we went in and filled our stomachs with greasy fried potatoes and fish.
Parks is always aware of the stress life places on Bessie.
Each day Bessie seems to sink into deeper despair. She complains about the filth and the falling plaster. "I could clean this place every hour and it would still look the same."
"A Harlem Family," Life, 8 March 1968, pp. 58-59.
Two of the children of the family do not live at home. ...Harry, 20, is confined as a narcotics addict at Brentwood, 25 miles east of Harlem, in New York's Pilgrim State Hospital. ...Brentwood is $4.50 in railway fare, too much. On a Sunday morning I drove Norman, Sr. and Bessie up to see him.
I hope to God you never touch the stuff again.
His answer stunned all three of us. "Well, I don't know -- I can't say for sure I'll never go back on it. You see, I wasn't on heroin, just cocaine -- which isn't so bad."
"A Harlem Family," Life, 8 March 1968, pp. 60-61. [The smaller photo on the right shows the block diagonally across the street from the Fontenelle's apartment. There's a liquor store on each corner.]
Upstairs, I could hear an argument through the door before I knocked. I stopped when I went in, but there was tension in the chilly apartment. ...I sat around for nearly a half hour in the uncomfortable stillness. Bessie went with me to the door. ..."Things were a little rough here tonight," she said softly. "One of his friends gave him a bottle."
The next afternoon when I arrived, Bessie was lying on her bed, groaning in misery. ...She managed a painful half-smile. "He gave me a going-over last night. ...I just can't take it no more. It's too much for anybody to bear." I asked where Norman, Sr., was. In the hospital, she said. "When he got through kicking me, I got up and poured some sugar and honey into a boiling pan of water and let him have it in his face." Why the sugar and honey? "To make it stick and burn for a while."
Norman Jr. and I went over to the hospital. It was almost impossible to recognize the father. The honey and sugar still coated his neck and face, and his right hand was horribly burned. He sat up on the side of the bed and daubed at his eyes. 'I don't know why your mother did it, boy,' he said. 'I just don't know why.' Then he lay back down and lapsed into painful sleep.
Just another one of the thousands of violences that explode in a ghetto every week, I thought as we left. In the heat of summer they pile up and spill into the street. And buildings burn and people are killed and windows are smashed.
Snow was falling again. He [Norman Jr.] headed back toward that cold apartment, and I wondered why they waited for summer.
The essay ended with those words and with the photo below. There was no caption.
"A Harlem Family," Life, 8 March 1968, pp. 62-63.
* * *
"A Harlem Family" packed a tremendous emotional wallop, and it found a receptive audience in Life's millions of middle-class white readers, many of whom were troubled by the direction the country seemed to be moving, especially when it came to race. Letters to the editor poured into the magazine's offices; hundreds of them were addressed to Parks. Moved by the essay and by the Fontenelles' plight, many readers wanted to know what they could do to help.
Answering them, Parks refused to address the systemic, institutionalized racism that shaped the Fontenelles' lives -- discrimination in employment, schooling, housing, healthcare. Instead, he talked about himself, knowing that readers would identify with him and his middle-class concerns and hoping that they would look inward.
Like Life, I have received hundreds of letter and questions asking "What can I do?" The answer is far too big and complex for me to attempt: society must give its conclusions. I can only speak through personal experience.
If you wish to turn my anger -- the Negro's anger -- from you, acknowledge me and my needs.
I could rattle off a thousand incidents that feed my hostility. I seldom do because I feel that you live too deeply in a hard reasoning of your own.
You have heard plenty about the ghetto houses, the rats and roaches, the need for bread and work. I’m talking about the casual little happenings that you create for me that continuously nourish my anger and dismay.
Parks recounted racial slights that he had experienced -- whites who avoided sitting next to him on a bus, being seated next to the kitchen in a restaurant, being turned away from a hotel that didn't accept black guests. These middle-class concerns were beside the point when it came to the Fontenelles' circumstances, but Parks must have felt they would produce at least small changes in the hearts and minds of Life's readers.
What Parks didn't do was to ask readers to help the Fontenelles. Maybe he knew that he didn't have to. In his memoir, A Hungry Heart, he remembered that the magazine's cover, "showing Ellen with a huge tear rolling down her cheek, helped bring the response we had hoped for. Life's readers had gotten the message. Sympathetic letters and money flooded in for the family."
Encouraged by the response, Parks asked Life to kick in additional money to buy the Fontenelles a new home, far from Harlem, and to furnish it. "Most important," Parks wrote, "the magazine helped Norman, Sr., get a job."
It should have been a fresh start for the Fontenelles and a triumph for Parks and Life. Things are rarely so easy.
* * *
A little over a year later, in May 1969, Life published an "Editor's Note" under the headline, "Tragedy in a House that Friends Built." Grief had followed the Fontenelles.
"The story ran small in Monday's newspapers," the note began.
Father, Son Die in House Fire; Mother Critically Burned.
For us at Life, and for photographer Gordon Parks, the news hit with a wrench. The family of Norman Fontenelle had been Gordon's subject in his Life essay a year ago.... Gordon had lived with the 10 Fontenelles; he had argued, laughed, and eaten with them... until he became a part of their lives. Out of the month together came the kind of bond that often does -- and sometimes muc -- grow between a journalist and his subject. The bond doesn't end with publication.
After Gordon's story appeared the Fontenelle family moved, with the help of Life and contributions volunteered by Life readers, to a modest furnished house in Springfield Gardens, Queens. The accidental, middle-of-the-night fire that swept through their house killed Norman, the father, and Kenneth, age 9. The other children escaped but their mother, Bessie, was badly burned and is hospitalized.
In his memoir, Parks filled in the blanks.
What happened then to Norman's family hangs brutally in my memory. To celebrate his new job [Norman, Sr.], with a friend emptied a bottle of whiskey at three o'clock in the morning. He reached his new home in a drunken stupor, sat on the sofa, lit a cigarette, and fell asleep. A while later he sprang awake, screaming. The entire room was ablaze.
Bessie managed to save all of the children except Kenneth. The house and everything in it was destroyed. Bessie refused to allow Life to rebuild her new home. She wanted to move back to Harlem and did, when the magazine "found her a comfortable apartment and gave her money to get started again."
Parks stayed in touch with the family for decades and was painfully aware that "disaster kept visiting what was left of the Fontenelles." Norman, Jr., went to prison. Other children were lost to the street and to Aids. Bessie died of cancer in 1990. Only Richard pulled himself out of poverty.
* * *
Nearing the end of his life, Parks was still thinking about the Fontenelles and the role that he played in their lives.
Sometimes I question my reasons for having ever touched the Fontenelles. I've been told that their story helped other Black families escape a similar existence. Perhaps that's so, but it doesn't alter my feelings about that family's misfortunes or those untimely deaths they met. The painful memories are still there....
* * *
It would be easy -- too easy -- to believe that the tragedy of "A Harlem Family" is an exemplary tale of the failure of the liberal documentary tradition and of the liberal imagination. Such a view would criticize Parks and Life for focusing so narrowly on the struggles of a single family and the magazine's readers for thinking that their simple acts of charity could make a difference.
I think that's wrong on several levels. "A Harlem Family" didn't stand alone. It has to be understood as part of that Special Section on black urban life. Other articles in the same issue looked at the larger political and economic roots of black impoverishment.
Perhaps it would have been nice if Life's readers, instead of writing checks, had dedicated their lives to the black liberation movement -- or, at least, had worked toward broad economic and political change. But it would be wrong-headed to criticize the charitable impulse. Readers reached out to the Fontenelles across a gaping divide of race and class, and, in America, that has never been easy to do.
* * *
"A Harlem Family" is currently the subject of an exhibition at the Studio Museum Harlem. I'm looking forward to seeing it later this month. An accompanying book, A Harlem Family, 1967, is being published by Steidl. I've got my copy on order.
Update, 5 March 2013: Recently, Jesse Newman and I took another look at the story of the Fontenelles. We learned their lives were much more complicated than the word "tragedy" can convey. Sometimes they were even inspiring. You can read about what we discovered in the New York Times' Lens blog.