Gordon Parks: A renaissance man

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

In 1963, Parks wrote his first book, "The Learning Tree," a novel about a young Black boy coming of age in Kansas that was loosely based on his own life. He also wrote several autobiographies: " A Choice of Weapons," "To Smile in Autumn" and "Voices in the Mirror." He began to write poetry, combining it with his photography, as well as novels and essays.

Film was next, and in 1969 Parks became the first Black American to direct a major motion picture in Hollywood. It was the film adaptation of his book "The Learning Tree," for which he also wrote the screenplay and the music.

In 1971, Parks directed the famous film "Shaft." Isaac Hayes wrote the soundtrack and the iconic "Theme from Shaft," and became the first Black to win an Oscar for music composition. The groundbreaking film helped usher in the Blaxploitation era. Parks later directed TV films.

Parks went on to receive a host of honors, including the Spingarn Medal in 1972 and the National Medal of Arts in 1988.

Even in his retirement, he continued to break new ground. He even interviewed rocker Lenny Kravitz in 2004 for Interview magazine.

Parks did it all and did it extremely well. He died on March 7, 2006, at age 93.


  • Look it up: Use the Internet or other reference source to learn more about the life and work of Gordon Parks. Check out some of Parks' books and photos.
  • Talk about it: Talk about how Gordon Parks rose up despite severe poverty and the racism of the day. Parks made a life-changing decision. Have you or someone you know ever been faced with a very important decision that had to be made quickly?
  • Write it down: Gordon Parks wrote several autobiographies at different stages of his life. An autobiography is when you write a story about your own life. A biography is when someone else writes it. Write a short autobiographical essay based on your life. Next, write a short biographical essay based on the life of a friend or relative. Do an art project similar to the ones Gordon Parks did. Write your own poetry and combine it with a photo you've taken, a painting or a drawing. If you like music, write a song of your own.
This Week in Black History, Nov. 7-Nov. 13
  • David Dinkins is elected as the first Black mayor of New York City on Nov. 7, 1989. On the same day, Douglass Wilder becomes the first Black governor of Virginia and the first Black governor of any state to be elected since Reconstruction.
  • On Nov. 8, 1966, Edward W. Brooke became the first Black elected to the Senate since Reconstruction.
  • On Nov. 12, 1974, South Africa was suspended from the U.N. General Assembly for its racial policies.