Photographer Gordon Parks met Ella Watson, an African American charwoman, in 1942, when she was busy sweeping the office where he worked for the Farm Security Administration in Washington, D.C. Parks was the only black artist to work for the program’s legendary photo department; he was dispatched by the agency to document the plight of America’s impoverished rural communities, as well as the work the FSA was doing to alleviate it.
“Good evening, young man,” Parks recalled Watson saying in his 2005 memoir, A Hungry Heart. “You’re new around here.” Parks had just moved to D.C. from Chicago, where he had been doing odd jobs—most recently as a waiter in a railway dining car—while teaching himself photography. Born in 1912 in Scott, Kansas, as the youngest of 15 children, Parks grew up in poverty himself. “What the camera had to do was expose the evils of racism, the evils of poverty, the discrimination and the bigotry, by showing the people who suffered most under it,” he said in a 1983 interview.
In 1942, Parks mounted a show at the South Side Community Art Center in Chicago. In attendance was Jack Delano, a staff photographer for the FSA, who encouraged Parks to apply for a year-long fellowship at the agency. The head of the photo program, Roy Stryker, accepted Parks—with reservations: he had doubts a black photographer could succeed in Washington, D.C., a city where racism and segregation were entrenched.
Stryker devised a kind of trial-by-fire, dispatching the photographer to run a few seemingly random errands: he told Parks to go get a meal, see a movie, and buy a coat. The restaurant, movie theater, and department store all refused Parks’s business—they would not serve blacks. Disgusted, the photographer returned to the office to get his cameras. “I want to show the rest of the world what your great city of Washington, D.C., is really like,” he told Stryker.
Parks met Watson a few months into his stint with the FSA. “How do you like Washington?” he asked her. “Can’t say I’m loving it,” she told him. “But I’m muddling through.” They chatted about her life. Watson told Parks that her father had been lynched by Southern mobsters, that her mother had died young, and her husband had been shot to death just days before the birth of their daughter. Now she was living with her granddaughter and helping to raise her children. She had worked for the government for 25 years. “By comparison my experiences were akin to a peaceful afternoon,” he wrote in A Hungry Heart. He asked Watson’s permission to take her photograph.
Parks posed Watson in front of a large American flag that hung in the FSA office. He had her hold her mop in one hand and her broom in the other, and asked her to think about the difficult things she had just shared with him. Watson’s mouth is set in a firm line, and she gazes directly into the camera lens. The pose was a deliberate reference to Grant Wood’s 1930 painting American Gothic, which depicts a stern, white, midwestern couple. The pair’s resolute and unpretentious character, combined with an air of hard work, inspired many to think of this couple as “Mr. and Mrs. American,” as one art historian put it.
Here, Parks presented an alternative image of an American: a widowed black woman who cleaned up after the mostly white employees of a government office in a deeply segregated city. A hard worker who provided for her family, she did not have the same opportunities as the unsmiling couple in Wood’s painting to achieve the American dream of security and wealth. Parks also titled his photo American Gothic.
When Parks showed Stryker the photo, the program head balked. (“My god, this can’t be published,” Parks recalled his boss saying.) But he encouraged Parks to continue photographing Watson. Eventually Parks produced a photo essay about her life, taking pictures of her at home and at church. However, it was this first portrait that became his most frequently referenced work, after Parks temporarily snuck it out of the FSA offices and submitted it to a Brooklyn newspaper, which published it.
“There were some politicians who objected to American Gothic finding a place in the FSA files,” Parks wrote in A Hungry Heart. “One Southern congressman snarled his opinion: ‘It amounts to an indictment of America.’ Perhaps he was right. Some photographs are often accused of telling the truth.”
I am in the midst of living my American dream. It has been about eight years since I picked up a camera, six since I decided to study photography as an art form, five since I took my first serious portrait, and four since I knew that I wanted to be a professor. This past August, I began teaching at the University of Arkansas and led my first class on documentary photography.
I am not naive about the fact that many of us don’t—won’t—find our life’s calling, let alone have the privilege to pursue it. I know that in a multitude of ways I am lucky to be in this position. I mention this not as a way to boast, but to acknowledge the complicated nature of dreaming.
I now understand why, as an undergraduate student, I was so enthralled with Gordon Parks’s portrait of Ella Watson. It’s rife with the complications of dreaming: the nature of wanting, the striving for achievement. Parks recognized that in himself, he recognized it in Ella Watson, and, more broadly, he recognized it in the scope of New Deal policies and the idea of the American dream.
With this in mind, I set out to see what the American dream is for black individuals today. My methodology was relatively simple. I wanted to connect with people with one script in mind: “What does the American dream mean to you?” A majority of responses—against my own assumptions—were more about the general idea of the American dream, rather than people’s personal aspirations. The result is a culmination of images and voices of person and place. The intimate portraits, windows, housing structures, and public monuments are not apparent representations of dreams. Rather, they beg the question of how we respond to the world around us and attempt to spin a golden American dream out of straw.
Or, as one my former students, sitting on the porch after I made his portrait, put it: “Just because we have this diverse community doesn’t necessarily mean that the diversity of the community is what decides what people are successful.”
Jean Fosso, 32
In this country, I feel like there’s more justice. I’m sure that you have more justice in this country than my country, Cameroon, because I’m able to walk and apply [for a job] somewhere. Usually when I’m going somewhere to apply, if they don’t take me, my first thought is, I didn’t do enough to get that position. Maybe I’m not fit enough—maybe they need someone who has more experience than me. I’m not trying to put that on them, usually I’m trying to take that off me, and that helps me to be stronger.
Kieran Wilson, 21
Growing up, my mother used to always pressure me and my siblings to dress our best ... she always talked about how you had to make a good first impression. But it wasn’t until I was in about high school—when I started hanging out with kids that I probably shouldn’t have hung out with—that I started wearing clothing that didn’t necessarily give a good first impression. That’s when I started realizing that the issue with the first impression was that my mother was afraid that if I dressed incorrectly, the color of my skin would affect people’s first impressions before my personality had the chance to.
Zora J. Murff is a visiting assistant professor of photography at the University of Arkansas. His work has been exhibited nationally and internationally, and featured online by publications including Aperture, The New Yorker, VICE, The British Journal of Photography, and the New York Times.
Explore Federal Project no. 2
This Land Is Your Land
During the Depression, the federal government urged Americans to visit the country’s natural wonders.
Shelter in Place
The most iconic image from the Great Depression centers on rural poverty—but then, as now, the misery of homelessness was compounded in America’s cities.
Song of the Mississippi
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Hole in One
Harnessing the power of the humble hole punch, to either create narratives or deflate them.
Back to the Music, Back to the Game
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The Exquisite Catalog of a Crow Fair
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Public Service Announcements
Updating the iconic posters of the Works Progress Administration.
Proposals for a Monument
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Portraits of Hard Living in America
The faces and places of a forgotten swath of American life.
The Afterlives of Slaves
Snapshots of a life after slavery, and an imagining of a world without bondage.
If You Build It, They Will Leave
During the New Deal, Southwest DC was razed to create a “model city” for federal workers. Now the area is being redeveloped again, this time into a gentrified urban playground.
The Health and Safety of the Mother
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A Room of One’s Own
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A Queen Is Born
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Stoop Life and Survival
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The Visible Man
Telling, and preserving, the stories that reveal what it’s really like to be black in America—from Ralph Ellison’s classic novel to now.
The People of the Land
Dust Bowl migrants had to pull up roots. Native Hawaiians are strengthening theirs.
After the Curtain Calls
Fulfilling the American dream of standing under bright lights while your friends and neighbors applaud.
The American Guide to the New Vermont
Shane Lavalette follows the refugees who have made their home in the whitest state in the nation.
The Measure of a Man
As Depression-era art centered on the heroic male figures rebuilding America, Paul Cadmus infused his public work with overt expressions of gay desire.
Letting Sleeping Children Lie
Leanne Shapton reconsiders motherhood after seeing a photograph of children asleep during a square dance.
When Art Is an Act of Protest
A summer of activism in Chicago reminds us that in order for history to be taught, it must first be recorded.
The Pioneer Women
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The Shapes of Things to Come
Before many Americans had ever seen an abstract painting, the WPA commissioned artists to create large, avant-garde murals—for installation in a public housing project.
Signs of Boom and Bust
Mark Steinmetz drives the streets of the city’s fast-growing urban sprawl.
The Many Lives of McCarren Park Pool
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On the Road in Search of Soul
The black Southerners who joined the Great Migration wanted to leave oppression behind—not their beloved family recipes. Their traditions would redefine American cooking.
She Works Hard for the Money
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Wall to Wall
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Life Beyond Bars
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The Cycle of a Woman’s Life
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