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Parks Kansas map

Image of Gordon Parks

Gordon
Parks


A Choice of Weapons book cover

The Learning Tree book cover

The Learning Tree movie poster

Movie poster for "The Learning Tree" movie

Parks directing "The Learning Tree"

Image of Parks directing a climactic scene
in "The Learning Tree."

Gordon Parks Collection
Mercy Health Center, Fort Scott

Gordon Parks Collection, Mercy Health Center, Fort Scott, Kansas

Gordon Parks Collection 2, Mercy Health Center, Fort Scott, Kansas

Parks Memorial Service, Fort Scott
Photos below by Carol Yoho
Select a thumbnail to see the larger version

memorial 1memorial flowers

memorial 3

memorial 4

 

 

Biography  
          

Gordon Roger Alexander Buchanan Parks was born in Fort Scott, Kansas, on November 30th, 1912.  Parks reports that he was actually born dead, but was saved through the efforts of an innovative young doctor.  The youngest of 15 children, Parks was raised by a devoutly Christian mother and a hard-working and moral father.  The Parks family was part of the black poor populace of Fort Scott, at that time a very segregated city, but the values instilled by his parents allowed Parks to dream of a brighter future.  Parks left Kansas for Minnesota after his mother's death when he was just 15.
 
After leaving Kansas, Parks moved to St. Paul, Minnesota, to live with a sister.  However, after a family dispute he was out on the street, where he was homeless for a time.  After a series of menial jobs, Parks discovered a talent for photography.  As the result of his native talent and a series of lucky breaks, Parks was able to develop photography into his lifelong calling.
 
Parks worked as a photographer for the Farm Security Administration during the depression, as a fashion photographer for Vogue magazine after the second world war, and then as for the prestigous Life magazine for 20 years, from 1948 until 1968.  Besides photography, Parks also discovered a talent for writing.  An autobiography of his early years, "The Learning Tree" became a bestseller, and he would go on to write three memoirs and a number of other works, including novels, poetry, music, and even a ballet.  Parks would become the first African American to direct a major studio picture with his adaptation of "The Learning Tree."  Parks would later direct, act in, or consult on a number of films.
 
Parks was influential in the civil rights movement, not as a speaker or organizer, but through the influence his work had on others.  Parks did a series of photos for Life that brought the plight of the black poor in the segregated south home to northern whites.  Parks was allowed access to photograph in the Nation of Islam, becoming so close to Malcolm X that he was asked to be the godfather of X's daughter.  When following the Black Panthers, he was offered a spot in the agency's heirarchy.  Even Parks' film, "Shaft," often billed as "blaxploitation," has been credited by some African Americans, including Russell Simmons, as giving them a new sense of power.
 
Parks was married and divorced three times, and was romantically linked to a number of other women, including Gloria Vanderbilt.  He had 4 children, including Gordon, Jr., who followed in his father's footsteps by becoming a photographer and moviemaker. 
 
Gordon Parks died in New York on March 7th, 2006 was a result of cancer.  He was ninety-three.  Parks is buried in Fort Scott, Kansas.


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Published Work  
 

(Titles in red denote titles dealing with Kansas)

Books:

Camera Portraits (1948) (documentary)
The Learning Tree (1964) (semi-autobiographical)
A Choice of Weapons (1967) (autobiographical)
Born Black (1970) (compilation of essays and photographs)
To Smile in Autumn (1979) (autobiographical)
Voices in the Mirror (1990) (autobiographical)
The Sun Stalker (2003) (biography on J.M.W. Turner)
A Hungry Heart (Nov. 1, 2005) (autobiographical)

Compilations of poetry and photography:

Gordon Parks: A Poet and His Camera (1968)
Gordon Parks: Whispers of Intimate Things (1971)
Gordon Parks: In Love (1971)
Gordon Parks: Moments Without Proper Names (1975)
Arias of Silence (1994)
Glimpses Toward Infinity (1996)
A Star for Noon - An Homage to Women in Images Poetry and Music (2000)
Eyes With Winged Thoughts (released Nov. 1, 2005)

 Films:

Flavio (1964)
Diary of a Harlem Family (1968)
The World of Piri Thomas' (1968)
The Learning Tree (1969)
Shaft (1971)
Shaft's Big Score (1972), director and composer
The Super Cops (1974)
Leadbelly (1976)
Solomon Northup's Odyssey (1984)
Martin (1989), PBS presentation of the stage performance of the ballet written on Martin Luther King, Jr.

 Music:

Moments Without Proper Names (1987)
Martin (1989) (ballet about Martin Luther King)
Shaft's Big Score

Courtesy of Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gordon_Parks)


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Writing Samples  
 

The Learning Tree

Sarah smiled to herself, for she remembered that for the past year she had wanted to talk with Newt about "people and things" but thought him too young to understand the things she wanted to speak of.  She had planned especially for him, her youngest, since the day he was born, but in the trials of living and caring for all the others she found it hard to clarify and formulate these plans.  Now she welcomed the breakthrough.  "Newt, you just ask me anything you want and I'll try to answer you."

"Well, after the storm, Poppa said that the storm and the people killed and everything was the doin' of God.  You care if I ask you why he kills some people and not the others?  Poppa said hisself that Mister Pullens was a good man.  And why did some of the town git torn up and the rest didn't?"
Sarah Winger came to a complete stop, and Newt was instantly afraid he had offended her.  He took a step beyond his mother, his face pointed straight ahead, eyes lowered and cast sideways for the reaction.  Her lips parted, but she didn't speak immediately;  then she started moving again.

"Newt."

"Yessem."

"You know your poppa and me are religious people, don't you?"

"Yessem."

"Well, it would be real easy for me to say, you don't question the ways of God- and I was tempted to- but I know deep in my heart that there's more to it than that.  It's true he guides us.  But we cain't depend on him for everything.  We gotta do things for ourself.  Now, maybe if Jim had built himself a storm cellar or a stronger house, he wouldn't a got killed so easy.  And if little Fannie Johnson's momma hadn't been drunk, she'd a held onto that lamp and her daughter wouldn't a got burnt.  It's like I say, we got to do some things for ourself.  If you got a battle to fight, you cain't rightfully ask the Lord to help you and not the other fella.  Now can you?"

"No ma'am."

"No, son, you got to fight and hope God likes the way you're using your fists.  And that goes for the boy you're fightin'.  Ain't neither one of you got time for prayin' while you're flingin' fists.  Too many people, especially some of ours, boy, sit around waitin' when they should be out doin'.  You got to always remember that, boy, always."

"Yessem.  Are we gonna live here all our life?"

Sarah looked searchingly at him.  "Don't you like it here?"

"I don't know, Momma.  I ain't never been no place else."

"I hope you won't have to stay here all your life, Newt.  It ain't a all-good place and it ain't a all-bad place.  But you can learn just as much here about people and things as you can learn any place else.  Cherokee Flats is sorta like a fruit tree.  Some of the people are good and some of them are bad- just like the fruit on a tree.  You know that, don't you, boy?"

"Yessem."

"Well, if you learn to profit from the good and bad these people do to each other, you'll learn a lot 'bout life.  And you'll be a better man for that learnin' someday.  Understand?"

"Yessem."

"No matter if you go or stay, think of Cherokee Flats like that till the day you die- let it be your learnin' tree."


"Kansas Land"
 
I would miss this Kansas land I was leaving.
Wide Prairie filled with green and cornstalk;
     the flowering apple,
Tall elms and oaks beside the glittering streams,
rivers rolling quiet in long summers of sleepy days
for fishing, for swimming, for catching crawdad
     beneath the rock.
Cloud tufts billowing across the round blue sky.
Butterflies to chase through grass as high as the
     chin.
June bugs, swallowtails, red robin and bobolink,
nights filled with soft laughter, fireflies
     and restless stars,
the winding sound of crickets rubbing dampness from
     wings.
Silver September rain, orange-red-brown Octobers and
     white Decembers with hungry
smells of hams and pork butts curing in the
     smokehouse.
Yes, all this I would miss-- along with the fear,
     hatred and violence
we blacks had suffered upon this beautiful land.


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Author Interview

 
 

A link to a 1998 interview with Parks:
http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/entertainment/jan-june98/gordon_1-6.html

A link to a series of video interviews with Parks. Of particular interest is the first, "My Hometown", which deals with his time in Kansas.
http://www.visionaryproject.org/parksgordon/


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Links  
 

Some of Parks' better known photos from his FSA days:

American Memory —search for "Gordon Parks"

More FSA Photos

More on Parks in the movies:

IMDb

Gordon Parks, Wikipedia

Parks on Kansas Historical Society's website.

Article from "The Little Balkans Review: A Southeast Kansas Literary & Graphics Journal" Vol. 5, No. 4 (Little Balkans Press, 2009)

Page Author: Owen Buchanan (owen.buchanan@washburn.edu) under the direction of Professors Averill and Yoho. All errors or omissions are my own.


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