Arts / Museums

Stokely Carmichael and Black Power Come to Life in Houston Through Gordon Parks’s Unforgettable Photographs

An Activist and Much More

BY // 01.10.23

The photographic exhibit “Gordon Parks: Stokely Carmichael and Black Power” — on view at the Museum of Fine Arts Houston through this Monday, January 16 — is revelatory. Culled from 700 Parks photographs, the 53 images displayed capture the complexity, multifaceted character and altruistic spirit of Carmichael. Parks, a polymath who also excelled at writing, initially captured Carmichael in a Life magazine photo essay.

Entitled “Whip of Black Power,” the essay appeared in the May 19, 1967 issue of Life. Curated masterfully by Lisa Volpe, the importance of this exhibit at MFAH cannot be overstated.

Indeed, Gordon Parks should be considered arguably the best American photographer of all time. Always working in sync with the zeitgeist and an astute observer of American society and culture, his work reflects timelessness. Parks’s style linked social realism and poetic realism, combining elements of documentary photography with vivid storytelling capturing quotidian scenes.

And behind the lens, he was equally adept at utilizing both artificial light and ambient light. In fact, his camera captured elements of surrealism and stark reality within the same photo. Following Stokely Carmichael for four months from Fall 1966 to Spring 1967, Parks’ photos reflect who Carmichael really was.

“Love for community and self love are the major themes of his work for this project,” writes Lisa Volpe, associate curator of photography at MFAH, in the exhibit catalog essay.

Although born in Port of Spain, Trinidad, Carmichael later became a citizen of the United States. As leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), he represented a major shift from the Civil Rights Movement to Black Power in the Unites States. An uncompromising, indefatigable, highly skilled organizer and orator, he often made headlines for his anti-capitalist, anti-systemic racism statements. Many issues Carmichael addressed — voting rights, classism, policing and imperialism — are still major issues today. And given the power of his voice and intellect, he served, in some respects, as an heir to Malcolm X. Contextualizing him as a great thinker of Caribbean origin, Carmichael joins Jean-Jacques Dessalines, Marcus Garvey and Frantz Fanon.

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But what the Gordon Parks exhibit really explains about Carmichael is: he was just as American as anyone else. In order to convey this idea, Parks employed several tropes, including the country doctor.  The story of Dr. Ernest Ceriani, immortalized in W. Eugene Smith’s iconic 1948 Life magazine essay “The Country Doctor,” inspired Parks. Ceriani worked tirelessly in Kremmling, Colorado, covering a 400 square mile area with a population of 2,000 people. Unlike the doctor in Franz Kafka’s short story “A Country Doctor,” Ceriani walked to appointments instead of riding a horse. In the end, he morphed into an archetypal figure.

“By kind of visually quoting it, Parks knew that people would subconsciously apply the character of the country doctor to Carmichael,” Volpe notes. “So, when looking at Parks’s contact sheets from this story, any time there were a lot of images — a lot of frames, a lot of shots in a row — I knew it was something I needed to pay attention to because Parks was a fantastic photographer.

“He didn’t need to take 10 shots in a row,” Volpe continues in describing the process of choosing photos for the exhibit.

May Charles Carmichael serving her children Lynette and Stokely at Lynette's wedding dinner in the Bronx, 1966. (Caption courtesy Lisa Volpe, MFAH. Photo by Gordon Parks, courtesy The Gordon Parks Foundation.)
Gordon Parks’ Untitled, Bronx, New York, 1967. The scene shows Mary Charles Carmichael serving her children Lynette and Stokely at Lynette’s wedding dinner in the Bronx. (Courtesy The Gordon Parks Foundation)

Throughout the exhibit, Parks captured the lighter more humorous side of Carmichael. In one photo, he laughs with friend and colleague Cleveland Sellers. Another photo reveals a grinning Carmichael wearing sunglasses — as viewed in the rear view mirror of a car. And a set of photos taken during his sister Lynette’s wedding cast him in a different light. Referring to Parks’s focus on the wedding, Volpe notes, “He shot three rolls of film at the wedding. So it was clearly an important element of the story to him.

“A lot of the women I spoke with told me he was funny, he was a bit of a flirt, he was handsome. So putting that in there too was great.”

Similarly, the exhibit delves into the deeper, more activism-oriented side of Carmichael. His journey across the United States included speaking engagements in Watts, Los Angeles, an antiwar demonstration in New York City and a stop in Lowndes County, Alabama. His messaging and symbolic usage of the black panther predates the Black Panther Party, which he later joined. Eventually moving to Guinea, he later changed his name to Kwame Ture. Two of Carmichael’s colleagues — Ron Wilkins and Terry Cannon — provided insight on who he was to Volpe.

The exhibit also captures a Houston angle. Carmichael’s visit to the Bayou City and the anti-policing protests that Texas Southern University students engaged in are included.

Although Parks later transitioned to cinema with movies including The Learning Tree, Shaft and Leadbelly, the exhibit itself reflects a cinematic quality inherent in Parks’ work.

“I think especially the series from Watts — when Carmichael is giving a speech in Watts — when you look at the contact sheets or just look at the photos on the wall of the exhibition, it really does unfold like a movie,” says Volpe, who previously curated a Georgia O’Keefe photo exhibit.

Referring to Parks, Volpe contends “he started his own realm. One of a kind. It feels like he could have done anything he put his mind to — and he did.”

The Gordon Parks: Stokely Carmichael and Black Power exhibit runs though this Monday, January 16 at Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.

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