bessie and her son richard by Gordon Parks
Gordon Parks’s compelling photograph of Bessie Fontenelle and her youngest son Richard, Jr., was published by Life magazine on March 8, 1968, as part of a special feature on blacks and poverty called A Harlem Family (or At the Poverty Board). Parks’s essay and twenty-five photographs vividly depict the hardships of a Harlem family living under deplorable conditions. Taken shortly after Bessie violently retaliated against her husband’s abuse, this image, which appears on the opening spread, captures both her love for her son and her deep frustration and exhaustion—the dichotomy of a life torn between hope and despair. Her sadness is tempered by her child’s wide-eyed innocence. The article begins with this admonition: “What I want/What I am/What you force me to be/is what you are,” suggesting that we are all part of one global family. Sadly, only young Richard survived the family’s hardships and grew up to escape poverty.
by Indiana University Art Museum