Thinking about the Baldwin story I posted the other day and about doing research at the American Library in Paris. I had an interesting surprise as I looked at a collection of Gordon Parks’ photos. I remember turning slowly through the pages, just admiring the images. Then I turned a page and saw a group of middle-aged black men gathered in a room. In my hazy memory, they are in a tai chi pose, but I’m sure the reality of that photo is a little different. Maybe a military pose, maybe a prayer pose.
I remember seeing that picture and stopping. Stopping and staring and staring and staring at those men’s faces. I remember almost starting to cry and not knowing what was wrong with me, what was going on. I closed the book and stared at nothing for a while. I went back to the photos and stared some more. And I remember being struck by two things in the same moment: I missed black people — black American people — and those men were so beautiful in a way I hadn’t ever consciously thought about black people being beautiful.
I stared at each of their faces and confirmed again and again that each was beautiful, each was so different from the black people I was meeting in Europe, that there was something so “home” about them, something that made it clear that they were my people, they were connected to me in a way that the Africans I was meeting in Paris and the rest of Europe couldn’t be.
A longing for home, for the chance to see those faces, hit me so powerfully, I did cry.
I spend a lot of time looking at people’s faces. And in my current neighborhood, I get to see a lot of black faces. I still sometimes get a mini-jolt of recognition, but never anything as grounding and soul-filling as that moment with Parks’ photo.
The night is beautiful,
So the faces of my people.
The stars are beautiful,
So the eyes of my people
Beautiful, also, is the sun.
Beautiful, also, are the souls of my people.
— Langston Hughes