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.
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.