On a warm August day in 1943, Gordon Parks photographed something rare in America. Parks, an African American photographer, hovered along the shore of a lake in New York, capturing scenes of children of various races swimming, laughing, and playing together at summer camp. In defiant contrast to the national segregated status quo, one of these photographs, entitled A Scene at the Swimming Dock, offers an image of kinship across the color line (figure 1). Within the square black-and-white image, two figures clasp hands as one helps the other emerge from a lake. The eye is first drawn to the figure in the top half of the image: a black teenager who helps a younger white boy climb a ladder out of the water and onto a dock. Then the eye moves to the clasped hands that imply equality via physical contact. In an era of stark racial segregation, the significance here cannot be overstated. The black camper appears older, larger, and more capable than his companion. His face, nearly obscured, has an expression of equanimity. He rests one hand coolly on a post, and with the other hand, he effortlessly helps the younger white boy, who is clearly struggling, out of the lake. Figure 1. View largeDownload slide Gordon Parks, A Scene at the Swimming Dock, August 1943. An African American teenager assists a younger white boy out of the lake at Camp Nathan Hale in Southfields, New York. Credit: Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, FSA/OWI Collection, LC-DIG-fsa-8d32650. Figure 1. View largeDownload slide Gordon Parks, A Scene at the Swimming Dock, August 1943. An African American teenager assists a younger white boy out of the lake at Camp Nathan Hale in Southfields, New York. Credit: Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, FSA/OWI Collection, LC-DIG-fsa-8d32650. The photograph tightly frames the black teen’s muscular physique. His dark skin and nimble posture recall the famous Greek sculpture, The Discobolus of Myron, all athletic energy and marvelous physicality. In contrast to the heroism of the black teen, the younger white swimmer clutches the palm of his companion, his other hand dangling in the air—a clumsy blur of motion that reveals his precarious balance. Surely this child would fall without assistance. Dark, uninviting waters expand into oblivion behind the campers, making this scene a moment of human warmth and altruism amid a backdrop of cold and dispassionate, even dangerous, nature. The two figures are suspended in a moment of kinship, where the strength and virtue of the black boy are pivotal to the well-being of the white boy. Two decades earlier, eleven-year-old Gordon Parks lived through the frightening antithesis of A Scene at the Swimming Dock. Unable to swim, Parks tumbled uncontrollably under the surface of the Marmaton River. The current pushed his small body along, but something unnatural instigated his close brush with death that day in 1923. In Parks’s rural Kansas hometown, racism incited three white boys to push him into the river, knowing that he would likely drown. “Swim, black boy, or die!” they shouted as Parks ducked his head into the river, hoping he would somehow find himself washed ashore far away from his assailants. In fact, that is exactly how Parks survived that day, and he remembered the terrifying incident for the rest of his life.1 This childhood trauma attests to the anomalous nature of A Scene at the Swimming Dock. The photograph’s unusually equitable depiction contrasts the larger norm of white supremacist violence and segregation in American wilderness spaces. Historian Marcia Chatelain argues that while integration activism in schools is well documented, “the parallel fight to bring recreational activities to children has not been as well captured.” Chatelain elaborates that “camping activism involved many of the same aspects of parent protest for integrated schools” and should be more fully historicized as an important component of desegregation struggles.2 Although seldom discussed in the larger struggle for African American equality, the ideological and physical exclusion of people of color from outdoor spaces reveals the pervasive and insidiously widespread nature of white supremacy. In 1943 Parks produced a series of summer camp photographs that challenged the racially exclusive nature narrative of the United States. By documenting seemingly mundane scenes of children of various races swimming, sharing meals, and recreating in nature, Parks’s summer camp imagery resisted America’s status quo of segregation in the wilderness and elsewhere. His images both demonstrated and subverted the way landscapes became ideologically inscribed with racism. The historical scarcity of similar photographs depicting people of color participating in outdoor recreation also testifies to American wilderness culture’s legacy of white supremacy. At the end of the nineteenth century, industrialization, urbanization, and immigration transformed the economic, geographic, and demographic fibers of the United States.3 By 1920 America’s increasingly diverse urban population outnumbered the country’s rural population for the first time.4 Many whites perceived these diverse, densely populated spaces as a challenge to the status quo of white superiority. They also worried that smog-filled sedentary urban lifestyles would diminish white male virility, which could trigger a “race suicide.”5 The wilderness, in contrast, offered a temporary reprieve from metropolitan life.6 Summer camps first emerged as a direct reaction to these urban anxieties by creating spaces for white boys to cultivate masculinity through vigorous recreation in the outdoors.7 American summer camps, then, originated as a panacea to solve the social quandaries of urbanization.8 Outdoor recreation often reflected the bigotry of white Americans, resulting in the ideological and physical exclusion of people of color from nature spaces. Geographer Carolyn Finney characterizes these racialized landscapes as “white spaces” because of the widespread cultural understanding that nature constituted white terrain.9 However, a small number of organizations used “camping activism” to counteract this racist ideology.10 In 1906 a group of affluent black reformers opened Camp Pleasant outside Washington, D.C., to socialize “disadvantaged” black mothers and their children according to Protestant middle-class values.11 After World War II, a group of Jewish and Christian summer camps ran multiracial facilities to demonstrate the peaceful possibility of integration.12 The New York camps that Parks photographed in 1943—Camp Nathan Hale, Camp Gaylord White, and Camp Fern Rock—operated as extensions of urban-based settlement houses that worked to integrate various races and ethnicities socially and economically.13 Camp administrators believed that refashioning summer camps into microcosms of integration would advance equality in the outdoors and elsewhere, a philosophy that Parks’s images reflect. Still, such organizations remained the exception among a summer camp industry that catered overwhelmingly to whites only.14 In 1942 Parks began working as a photographer for the Farm Security Administration (FSA), primarily to document the lives of black Americans living under segregation.15 A New Deal organization that initially aimed to eradicate rural poverty, the FSA hired photographers to travel across the country to document scenes of everyday life. Collectively, these photographers produced a visual rhetoric that ennobled the lives and struggles of average (and usually white) Americans during a time of great economic hardship.16 Parks documented summer camps in this context, creating images that glow with the possibility of harmonious integration. Scenes of black and white children happily swimming, playing, eating, dwelling, and washing together mirror many of the most contentious segregated venues that later became sites of national protest: restaurants, restrooms, and outdoor recreation areas. The theme of public integration emerges repeatedly in Parks’s camp pictures, making the photos harbingers of the civil rights protests of the 1960s, a movement predicated on the social power of images. Throughout his career, Parks consistently used photography to highlight the everyday inequalities of American existence. He described his camera as “a weapon against poverty, against racism, against all sorts of social wrongs.”17 Parks sometimes alluded to popular culture to accomplish this. In 1943 Parks drew inspiration from Freedom from Want, a Norman Rockwell painting that conceptualized one of the “four freedoms” (the freedoms of speech and worship, and the freedoms from want and fear) that President Franklin Roosevelt outlined in a 1941 speech.18 The painting, which the Saturday Evening Post published on its cover in March 1943, depicts a joyful white family gathered around a dinner table. A sumptuous turkey serves as their centerpiece. Their happy disembodied faces surround the rectangular table that fills most of the frame. Parks emulated Rockwell’s composition in one of his summer camp photos but with a profound difference. As in the painting, The Boardinghouse Reach hovers above a long rectangular dining table that fills the frame, surrounded by cropped smiling faces (figure 2). Yet, while Freedom from Want portrays a white family, Parks’s image shows black and white teenagers sitting close enough to brush shoulders. The boys’ seemingly quotidian act of dining together juxtaposed a reality of segregated restaurants across the nation. Another camp photograph called Soap’s in My Eyes similarly conveys two male campers—one black and one white—washing together in a shared bathroom facility (figure 3). In both photographs, the absence of any signs reading “Colored” or “Whites Only,” coupled with the physical proximity of the campers, presents the tangible possibility of an integrated America. Figure 2. View largeDownload slide Gordon Parks, The Boardinghouse Reach, August 1943. Teenage boys of various races share a meal together at Camp Nathan Hale in Southfields, New York. Credit: Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, FSA/OWI Collection, LC-USW3-036798-D. Figure 2. View largeDownload slide Gordon Parks, The Boardinghouse Reach, August 1943. Teenage boys of various races share a meal together at Camp Nathan Hale in Southfields, New York. Credit: Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, FSA/OWI Collection, LC-USW3-036798-D. Figure 3. View largeDownload slide Gordon Parks, Soap’s in My Eyes, August 1943. Summer campers of different races use an integrated bathroom facility at Camp Nathan Hale in Southfields, New York. Credit: Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, FSA/OWI Collection, LC-USW3-036792-D. Figure 3. View largeDownload slide Gordon Parks, Soap’s in My Eyes, August 1943. Summer campers of different races use an integrated bathroom facility at Camp Nathan Hale in Southfields, New York. Credit: Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, FSA/OWI Collection, LC-USW3-036792-D. Posing whites in close physical proximity to black male teenagers contested a number of stereotypes about black masculinity. Art historian Michael Hatt explains that since the mid-nineteenth century, white culture has paradoxically construed African Americans “as both sub-human savages who needed to be kept in bondage for everyone’s safety, and as docile, lazy, good-for-nothings who required care, since they were incapable of looking after themselves.”19 Parks frequently challenged these stereotypes by showing scenes of integrated camaraderie. He even prominently portrayed a black male body as a champion of white safety in the wilderness in A Scene at the Swimming Dock. Because Parks often focused on such positive portrayals instead of showcasing the atrocities of white supremacy, some scholars have criticized his work.20 However, this criticism underestimates the significance of the counternarrative that Parks created. Historian Leigh Raiford argues that those who examine the work of black photographers should “continually read the photograph, especially in the context of the long African American freedom struggle, as both artifact and artifice, as indexical record and utopian vision, as document and performance.”21 Parks implicitly acknowledged the presence of white supremacy across both culture and landscapes by portraying a blissfully multicultural America that did not exist. His photos equally incorporated citizens of all colors into the narrative, with nature as a setting for diversity, rather than a racist retreat for whites. Unlike the canonical American environmental images that picture sublime landscapes devoid of humans, Parks centered people in his nature narratives. In most wilderness scenery, human erasure contributed to an assumption of white possession. For example, nineteenth-century landscape photographers created scenes absent of indigenous peoples that reinforced the idea of wilderness as an empty space for whites to claim.22 Historian Finis Dunaway argues that New Deal environmental filmmakers also presented “a bleached vision of American society, a culture united not only by its landscape but also by its whiteness, by its desire to deny the troubling problems and inequalities of race.”23 Parks, however, depicted nature as a space where equality could thrive. Human activities came to the fore in his compositions, with the outdoors serving as a backdrop to support his social commentary. By acknowledging the inextricable relationship between the outdoors and society, Parks rejected what historian William Cronon calls the “dangerous dualism that sets human beings outside nature.”24 In doing so, Parks firmly linked social and spatial equity. Parks’s most subversive summer camp scene embodies this human-focused narrative. Loretta Gyles, an African American teenager aiming a bow and arrow, stands ready to release her weapon at any moment (figure 4). A dense background of trees frames her figure. The photograph resembles Augustus Saint-Gaudens’s statue Diana, a golden form of the Roman goddess of the hunt brandishing a bow and arrow. Gyles favors Diana in both posture and demeanor: each figure manifests fierce composure, quashing any notion of female fragility. Parks’s choice to photograph Gyles from below also accentuates her strength and stature. The composition gives the impression that she looms above the viewer in a display of dominance. Although Gyles’s expression seems focused, it also depicts a relaxed confidence. While many of Parks’s summer camp images reflect themes of unity, this image presents a moment of proud black autonomy embodied in a teenage girl at summer camp. Figure 4. View largeDownload slide Gordon Parks, Pulling a Bow, August 1943. Loretta Gyles aims a bow and arrow, creating a scene that portrays black autonomy in the wilderness at Camp Fern Rock in Bear Mountain, New York. Credit: Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, FSA/OWI Collection, LC-DIG-fsa-8d32634. Figure 4. View largeDownload slide Gordon Parks, Pulling a Bow, August 1943. Loretta Gyles aims a bow and arrow, creating a scene that portrays black autonomy in the wilderness at Camp Fern Rock in Bear Mountain, New York. Credit: Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, FSA/OWI Collection, LC-DIG-fsa-8d32634. Further, the symbolism of an African American female wielding a weapon challenges the violent subordination of African Americans in the wilderness. The photograph attempts to transcend what Finney calls the “collective memory” of trauma associated with the woods because of a national legacy of lynching—an epidemic of white mob violence that killed an estimated 4,472 African Americans between 1882 and 1968.25 “While most African Americans have never seen a lynching,” Finney explains, “the act of terror perpetrated on a black person in the woods is remembered both for the place where it happened and the act itself.”26 Murdered black bodies hung from trees, terrifying “spatial reminders” of white supremacy.27 Parks, however, reimagines the wilderness as Gyles’s comfortable domain, a place where she can defend herself with poise and will not be victimized. In 1940 black intellectual W. E. B. Du Bois published an autobiography, Dusk of Dawn, in which he described a sense of “double environment” that expanded on his notion of “double consciousness.” Just as double consciousness described the conflicting dual identity that African Americans often felt in being both black and American, double environment spoke to a sense of separation between the “white surrounding world” and the “environment furnished by his own colored group.”28 In his 1920 book Darkwater, Du Bois also described American racism with an environmental perspective. “Whiteness,” he asserted, “is ownership of the earth.”29 Parks’s summer camp imagery directly challenged the grip whiteness held on the wilderness. His photographs provide a hopeful, even defiant vision of US racial landscapes. The history of racism in the United States assumed (and continues to assume) physical forms, retaining its shape in the cultural chasm evident in the racialized geography of wilderness. Yet the historical presence of these camps, as interpreted through Parks’s lens, speaks to the alternative possibilities that could have replaced this racist, socio-spatial exclusion. In Parks’s renderings of these camps, the optimistic notion of a more equitable society sprung up around the unlikely venue of American wilderness culture’s quintessential campfires, tents, and canoes. Parks’s imagery offered an elusive, alternative vision of race, one that earnestly celebrated difference and embraced diversity across all landscapes despite a reality of prolific racism. During one FSA assignment, Parks found himself in Springfield, Massachusetts, on the same day that a lynching occurred there. He recalled that life could be “very vicious for a Negro around certain areas,” even in the North.30 Conversely, while on assignment at Camp Nathan Hale, Parks photographed an interaction between two boys that he captioned Dinner Bell. One child is black, and the other white. Pictured together toward the bottom of the frame, the boys clutch a dangling rope that hangs from a tree (figure 5). Their clenched fists stack directly on top of each other, hands alternating in a vision of unity. Below their closed fists, the rope gathers in what resembles a small noose. This unsettling configuration of a rope hanging from a tree directly referenced lynching imagery, a gruesome phenomenon with a distinctive history.31 White perpetrators often documented the murders, commemorating both the carnage and “carnival-like atmosphere and the expectant mood of the crowd” by taking a snapshot to mail to friends and relatives, or even sell for profit.32 Yet in spite of this loaded symbolism, the boys gaze toward the top of the tree with happy expressions, nestled in the safety of summer camp. They see no “strange fruit,” but a dinner bell that bears a resemblance to the Liberty Bell: a symbol of freedom that they chime together. Figure 5. View largeDownload slide Gordon Parks, Dinner Bell, August 1943. Two teenage boys, one black and one white, together ring a dinner bell, an object that resembles the Liberty Bell, at Camp Nathan Hale in Southfields, New York. Credit: Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, FSA/OWI Collection, LC-DIG-fsa-8d40647. Figure 5. View largeDownload slide Gordon Parks, Dinner Bell, August 1943. Two teenage boys, one black and one white, together ring a dinner bell, an object that resembles the Liberty Bell, at Camp Nathan Hale in Southfields, New York. Credit: Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, FSA/OWI Collection, LC-DIG-fsa-8d40647. Amanda Martin-Hardin studies the intersections of race, the environment, and visual culture. She recently earned her master’s degree in history at Montana State University and will begin a doctoral program at Columbia University in the fall of 2018. Footnotes I would like to express my sincere gratitude to Catherine Dunlop, Billy Smith, Robert Rydell, Amanda Hendrix-Komoto, Mary Murphy, Anthony Wood, Finis Dunaway, and the anonymous peer reviewers for their invaluable contributions to this essay. 1 Gordon Parks, “Alone on City Streets for Christmas Eve: ‘I Knew I Was In for a Hard Time, and I Had Only Myself to Count On for Survival,’” Los Angeles Times, December 3, 1990, accessed January 13, 2016, http://articles.latimes.com/1990-12-03/news/vw-4401_1_hard-time. 2 Marcia Chatelain, South Side Girls: Growing Up in the Great Migration (Durham: Duke University Press, 2015), 145. 3 Michael McGerr, A Fierce Discontent: The Rise and Fall of the Progressive Movement in America, 1870–1920 (New York: Free Press, 2003), 97. 4 Hillary Hallett, Go West, Young Women! The Rise of Early Hollywood (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013), 3. 5 Miles A. Powell, Vanishing America: Species Extinction, Racial Peril, and the Origins of Conservation (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2016), 114. 6 Pamela Riney-Kehrberg, The Nature of Childhood: An Environmental History of Growing Up in America Since 1865 (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2014), 8. 7 Paul Mishler, Raising Reds: The Young Pioneers, Radical Summer Camps, and Communist Political Culture in the United States (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999), 6. 8 Michael Bruce Smith, “And They Say We’ll Have Some Fun When It Stops Raining: A History of Summer Camps in America.” Order No. 3075963, Indiana University, 2002, accessed October 7, 2017, https://search-proquest-com.proxybz.lib.montana.edu:3443/docview/305560403?accountid=28148, vi. 9 Carolyn Finney, Black Faces, White Spaces: Reimagining the Relationship of African Americans to the Great Outdoors (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2014). 10 Chatelain, South Side Girls, 145. 11 Kevin K. Gaines, Uplifting the Race: Black Leadership, Politics, and Culture in the Twentieth Century (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998), 82. 12 Phyllis Palmer, “Recognizing Racial Privilege: White Girls and Boys at National Conference of Christians and Jews Summer Camps, 1957–1974,” Oral History Review 27 (Summer-Autumn 2000): 132. 13 Administration, box 40, folder 6, 4079915, Union Settlement Association Records, 1896–1995, Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Columbia University. 14 Abigail A. Van Slyck, A Manufactured Wilderness: Summer Camps and the Shaping of American Youth, 1890–1960 (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006), xxxiv. 15 Gordon Parks, A Hungry Heart: A Memoir (New York: Atria Books, 2005), 64. 16 Mary Murphy, Hope in Hard Times: New Deal Photographs of Montana, 1936–1942 (Helena: Montana Historical Society Press, 2003), 12. 17 Andy Grundberg, “Gordon Parks, a Master of the Camera, Dies at 93,” New York Times, March 8, 2006. 18 Laurie Norton Moffatt, “Voting Is Norman Rockwell’s Fifth Freedom: Voices,” USA Today, November 2, 2016. 19 Michael Hatt, “‘Making a Man of Him’: Masculinity and the Black Body in Mid-Nineteenth-Century American Sculpture,” Oxford Art Journal 15 (March 1992): 22. 20 Nicholas Natanson, The Black Image in the New Deal: The Politics of FSA Photography (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1992), 186. 21 Leigh Raiford, Imprisoned in a Luminous Glare: Photography and the African American Freedom Struggle (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2011), 6. 22 Martin Berger, Sight Unseen: Whiteness and American Visual Culture (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005), 44. 23 Finis Dunaway, Natural Visions: The Power of Images in American Environmental Reform (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008), 61. 24 William Cronon, “The Trouble with Wilderness; or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature,” in Uncommon Ground: Rethinking the Human Place in Nature, ed. William Cronon (New York: Norton, 1995), 69–90. 25 James Allen, Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America (Santa Fe: Twin Palms Publishers, 2000), 12. 26 Finney, Black Faces, White Spaces, 55. 27 Marisa J. Fuentes, Dispossessed Lives: Enslaved Women, Violence, and the Archive (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016), 21. 28 John Claborn, “W. E. B. Du Bois at the Grand Canyon: Nature, History, and Race in Darkwater,” in The Oxford Handbook of Ecocriticism, ed. Greg Garrard (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014), 119. 29 W. E. B. Du Bois, Darkwater: Voices Within the Veil (Mineola: Dover, 1999), v. 30 “Oral history interview with Gordon Parks, Dec. 30, 1964,” https://www.aaa.si.edu/collections/interviews/oral-history-interview-gordon-parks-11480. 31 Marcus Wood, “Valency and Abjection in the Lynching Postcard: A Test Case in the Reclamation of Black Visual Culture,” Slavery and Abolition 34 (May 2013): 202. 32 Allen, Without Sanctuary, 11. © The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the American Society for Environmental History and the Forest History Society. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices)
Environmental History – Oxford University Press
Published: Apr 25, 2018
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