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Gordon Parks: A renaissance man

JASMIN K. WILLIAMS Special to the AmNews | 11/10/2011, 2:41 p.m.

Today's lesson takes a look at an extraordinary man with a birthday this month.

Gordon Parks was a man of many talents. He was a world-renowned photographer, the first Black photographer at Vogue and Life magazines. He was a photojournalist. His photo essays on urban Black life and of a poor Brazilian boy named Flavio firmly established his reputation. He may have started with his camera, but he went on to become a prolific filmmaker, painter, poet, novelist, musician and composer. His great rise had humble beginnings.

In his book, " A Choice of Weapons," Parks said, "I chose my camera as a weapon against all the things I dislike about America-poverty, racism, discrimination."

Parks came into the world on Nov. 30, 1912, in Fort. Scott, Kan. He was dead. A doctor plunged the stillborn child into ice-cold water, and the shock caused his little heart to start beating. The boy was named Gordon in honor of the doctor who saved his life.

He was the youngest of 15 children. His parents were tenant farmers. His childhood was filled with poverty and love. Parks adored his mother, who died when he was 14 years old. He described his father as a good man despite the fact that the two had spoken "less than 1,000 words" in his entire childhood. "I loved him in spite of his silence," Parks said.

After the death of his mother, the children were split up and Parks was sent to live with his sister. "Remember your momma's teachings and you'll be alright," his father said as Parks got into the taxi to take him away. However, a dispute with his sister's husband left the teenager homeless and broke.

Despite being homeless and on his own in the harsh Kansas winter, Parks was determined to keep up with his schooling. He would ride the streetcar all night to stay warm and get off in the morning to head to class.

One day, broke, hungry and desperate, Parks, armed with a pocket knife, thought about robbing the streetcar driver. As he fingered the blade in his pocket, he remembered his momma's teaching and stopped. The driver offered to buy the hungry boy a hot dog. Parks later recalled that as a pivotal moment that changed his life as he decided in an instant to do the right thing.

Parks spent many years homeless, poor and struggling. He took odd jobs, including one as a piano player in a brothel. One day, he spied a camera in a pawnshop and bought it. The camera would both change his life and become his life's work.

Parks taught himself photography and began working as a freelance portrait and fashion photographer before getting a job with the Farm Security Administration. It was during this time that he took his most famous photo, "American Gothic."

In 1948, Parks became the first Black staff photographer for Life magazine. While there, Parks took his famous photo essay of a poor young Brazilian boy named Flavio. Parks also continued to document the conditions of urban Black life.