2 – Gordon Parks’ ‘American Gothic’, the American Flag & Institutions

Both the images above share the same title of ‘American Gothic’. The photograph on the left is by Gordon Parks (1942) and the painting on the right is by Grant Wood (1930). Park’s photograph depicts government cleaning woman Ella Watson and Parks’ spoke about the creation of this image stating, “I had experienced a kind of bigotry and discrimination here that I never expected to experience. … At first, I asked her about her life, what it was like, and [it was] so disastrous that I felt that I must photograph this woman in a way that would make me feel or make the public feel about what Washington, D.C. was in 1942. So I put her before the American flag with a broom in one hand and a mop in another. And I said, “American Gothic”–that’s how I felt at the moment. I didn’t care about what anybody else felt. That’s what I felt about America and Ella Watson’s position inside America”. This way of using the flag in the image and the title harking back to the painting of what could be argued to depict some part of the ‘American dream’ is a really powerful thing. The use of the American or U.S. flag as protest has been seen throughout art and liberation movements throughout history. By using the flag in this image of Ella Watson it draws attention to the fact that she is a part of the United States and is not being treated fairly, its staging, almost like a presidential candidate’s photo brings up ideas about positions of power and who does or does not have them.

I believe that this image brings into question the way the institutions or America as an institution in itself has created forced ways of being for certain groups of people at the cost of them and the profit of those in power. Although I cannot find out all the details of this image, the fact that Ella Watson is said to be a government cleaning woman in some research and a chairwoman who also mopped the floors of the FSA building in others showcases this lack of history for African American stories and with the idea of her being a chairwoman and possibly having some form of power in the community makes this image all the more powerful, she is the one who is made to mop the floors, even with the power she may have.

Parks’ talks about the racism he saw and had happen to him in Washington D.C. in 1942 and how he partially felt the need to create this image because of that. He encountered a lot of institutionalised racism that he hadn’t before, with aspects such as, he states, “White restaurants made me enter through the back door, white theaters wouldn’t even let me in the door, and as the day went on things just went from bad to worse.”

This photo was said at the time to depict an ‘indictment of America’, further showcasing that this situation was nationwide and institutional. In the book Nobody Passes by Mattilda Sycamore Bernstein, in the article ‘Who’s that Wavin’ that Flag?’ one of the interviewees talks of the use of the American flag in protests and states ‘we’re gonna carry this flag because we’ve also built this country’ (54). I believe that this image shows both the nature of protest against American institutions and norms but also, with the inclusion of the mop and broom, showing work done for others, it stands by this idea of having built the country alongside everyone else, but it also makes a point to say that because of that we deserve more.

 

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