Several themes are regularly visited in this blog, chief among them are photography and the memoir. Gordon Parks was an amazing photographer, who did not consider himself an activist, but who, through his life and work became a maverick and trailblazer.
In 1948 Parks' completed a "photo essay on a young Harlem gang leader, which won Parks a staff job as a photographer and writer with Life magazine. For 20 years, Parks produced photos on subjects including fashion, sports, Broadway, poverty, racial segregation, and portraits of Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael, Muhammad Ali, and Barbra Streisand.
His 1961 photo essay on a poor Brazilian boy named Flavio da Silva, who was dying from bronchial pneumonia and malnutrition, brought donations that saved the boy's life and paid for a new home for his family." Source:Wikipedia
The strength of Parks' work, resides in its perspicacity coupled with the power of the stories he tells through his photography. It is the reason why doors typically closed to African-Americans during the pre-Civil Rights era, were opened for him. These skills and talents allowed him to work for some of the most prestigious fashion magazines in America, at a time when most African-American photographers, journalist, and models were barred.
Parks' association with the Civil Rights Movement, and in particular, the two photos of individuals associated with the Nation of Islam (NOI); Ethel Shariff, Daughter of Elijah Muhammad, and Malcolm X prompted this post.
For those not familiar with the Nation of Islam, it is a heretical sect that was founded in America in 1930. It is considered heretical because of their belief that the founder Wallace Fard Muhammad was the Mahdi or Messiah, and later Elijah Muhammed deified Wallace as "god incarnate".
Though not directly tied to Marcus Garvey's Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), the vacuum left by Garvey's death and the dissolution of the UNIA enabled the Nation of Islam to successfully attract a great number of followers.
The liberation theology espoused by Garvey appealed to Black American revolutionaries who had no where to go after his death. The Nation of Islam filled this void, with less pomposity, tighter behavioral constraints, and and the patina of legitimate Islam.
Just as the Nation of Islam attracted Malcom X in the early 60's, it also attracted my father. I remember well the trips to the mosque not so much for the religious observance, but because of the "bean pies" which I found quite delicious. The women dressed in all white, their long skirts and sleeves obscuring every part of their bodies, represented but a hint of the oppression my mother, sister and I would eventually struggle under once we fully embraced the sect.
My father had us convert to this form of Islam prior to our departure to Africa. It was his belief that the only place for an African man to live was in Africa, and that even within the confines of the Nation of Islam, an African man in America was still enslaved.
My father instituted for our family an amalgamated solution to what he viewed as the "Black Man's Problem". His solution included the rejection of a religion that was foisted upon us by slave masters; and like the Garveyites before him, a strategy to relocate and become repatriated to our homeland.
Our family began to observe Orthodox Islam after our relocation to Nigeria, West Africa. Like Malcolm X, who later became disillusioned with the Nation of Islam after a pilgrimage to Mecca, Saudi Arabia; our exposure to Sunni Islam in Nigeria revealed to my father the fallacy of the NOI. Malcolm X's trip to Africa also proved life altering because "for the first time, he was able to share his thoughts and beliefs with different cultures, and found the response to be overwhelmingly positive.
Thus, we lived first in Nigeria, before making a 29 day journey through seven countries as we crossed the Continent from West to East to end up in Tanzania. My father has remained true to his Pan-African vision for the past 35 years; moving around the Continent to live in countries led by individuals for whom he felt an affinity either politically and ideologically.
I have provided a five part video series on Marcus Garvey which should prove both informative and instructional to those who are unfamiliar with his story.