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Gordon Parks

The first time I saw Gordon Parks’s photograph “American Gothic” — during a slide presentation in an undergraduate art school class in the 1970s — I was awe-struck.

I wanted to hold fast to the memory of that image of Ella Watson even as the professor moved to the next photo. Her polka-dot dress with puffed sleeves and two missing buttons, her wire-rimmed glasses half in shadow. The inverted tools of her trade, the straw curve of the worn broom and the curl of cotton mop, made me curious.

Parks met Ella Watson in 1942, when he had a Rosenwald fellowship with the Farm Security Administration in Washington, D.C. She was a cleaning woman in the offices there, and he went on to photograph her at work, at home with her family, in her neighborhood, and at St. Martin’s Spiritual Church. 

“American Gothic” — a reference to the famous Grant Wood painting — is a construction that afforded rare attention to a black female subject who was not a celebrity or entertainer, but a mother and a worker. In this photograph, Parks formed an image of Mrs. Watson at work, her loosely fitted work dress pinned closed, allowing the viewer to link the necessity of her role as a family provider with the harshness of her existence. The American flag that hangs behind her frames her with the tools of her labor.

Ever since that moment in class, I have remained curious about the photograph and about Ella Watson herself. I was impressed by the solemnity of her pose and the expression on her face as she looks at the camera, yet beyond the photographer. Her gaze allowed me to enter into the picture and wonder — was she a willing model, did she satisfy the request of Parks, who undoubtedly directed this unconventional pose? Whatever their exchange about patriotism, inequality and commitment, Ella Watson took her role seriously as the artist’s muse.

This week I had the opportunity to chat with Ella Watson’s great-granddaughter Rosslyn Samuels. She was a child when her great-grandmother came to live in her family’s home in Washington, and they shared a bedroom. Ms. Samuels’s mother, granddaughter to Ella Watson, and her father had asked her to stay with them after Mrs. Watson’s last daughter had moved out of the family home. Ms. Samuels said Mrs. Watson spent her life taking care of family — her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren — and caring about others’ welfare and comfort. 

Ms. Samuels also told me that she had never seen her great-grandmother at work outside the home nor heard her speak of “American Gothic.” She was about 12 or 13 when Mrs. Watson died, but her grandmother Lauretta talked about the photograph, which Ms. Samuels saw for the first time when she was 18.

Ms. Samuels shared stories about the special intimacy and great understanding that the two women experienced with each other in search of comfort and joy. In their shared bedroom was a tall, lace-topped chest of drawers that displayed framed family photographs. Ms. Samuels combed, brushed and braided her great-grandmother’s hair every weeknight before she said her prayers: Ella Watson was a devout Christian. She read the Bible every day, and church was an essential part of her spiritual and social life. 

I had often thought of Ella Watson as an empowered woman who understood what it meant to be responsible for others. Ms. Samuels agreed, and said she had an extraordinary heart and an extraordinary faith: “She lived according to her faith and did not sway from it,” she said. “She prayed every morning as well as every night and would instill in her family to be giving, kind and forgiving.”

In looking again at Parks’s photographs of Ella Watson — he made at least 90 — I am reminded of other people’s readings of the images over the years, ones that stressed the struggles in her life, her long working hours, and I searched for those readings in the various portraits of her. 

But Ms. Samuels offered another way of seeing Mrs. Watson — she explained that her great-grandmother often spoke of the delight she took in caring for the family’s children. She loved cooking, and Ms. Samuels recalled a story about a meal that she tried to avoid eating by poking a hole in a bag of black-eyed peas. When the peas spilled onto the floor, she was certain that she would not have to eat peas that night. She was surprised when her great-grandmother said: “Oh, this is a great opportunity. We can pick these up, wash them and cook them for dinner.” 

Curious about her Saturday nights and Sunday mornings, I asked Ms. Samuels about Ella Watson’s clothing, her sense of style. Ms. Samuels described her as neat and meticulous, a modest and humble woman who wore house dresses at home during the week and her best clothes on Sunday. She never wore pants and would stay in her bedclothes as she prepared for church. She wore monochrome dresses and kitten-heeled shoes that she polished weekly, and she never allowed her great-granddaughter to style her hair for church. She had her style for Sunday! 

In my quest to confirm my perception of the personality I had imagined for this stoic black woman in the photograph, I asked Ms. Samuels a final question. How would you describe your great-grandmother to someone today? Ms. Samuels responded immediately that she was a “Proverbs 31 woman!”

As that Old Testament passage says: “She watches over the affairs of her household and does not eat the bread of idleness … Honor her for all that her hands have done, and let her works bring her praise at the city gate.”

Three of Ella Watson's descendants will be recognized at the Gordon Parks Foundation's Awards Dinner and Auction on May 22 in New York City. Ms. Samuels, and Ms. Watson’s granddaughters Sharon Stanley and Audrey Johnson, will receive a print of the “American Gothic” photograph. Other honorees include Ava DuVernay, Ronald O. Perelman; Ta-Nehisi Coates; Sherrilyn Ifill; Sally Mann and Jamel Shabazz.

Deborah Willis, Ph.D, is chairwoman of the Department of Photography and Imaging at the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University. A MacArthur and Guggenheim fellow, she is the author of “Reflections in Black: A History of Black Photographers — 1840 to the Present” and “Posing Beauty: African American Images From the 1890s to the Present,” among others.


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