Gorden Parks – a Remembrance

The news is as full of Muhammed Ali’s death today as it was three weeks ago of the drug overdose death of Prince. Today another seminal black American died, Gordon Parks.

My father recommended his 1966 autobiography to me when I was in high school. Civil Rights had been in the air since I started school in Brown vs. Board of Education’s Topeka, Kansas in the fall of 1956. The Court decision preceded my enrollment into first grade by two years and involved the Monroe School that my Grandmother Welty had attended as a child, albeit in a new building that had replaced her fire damaged elementary school. (What I’ve just written seems to be called into question by this official National Historic Site website)

Parks’ book was one of several I read in High School on the issue of race including the novelized treatment of the Nat Turner slave revolt Confessions and Black Like Me about a white journalist who disguised himself as a black man and hitchhiked across the deep south. I really enjoyed A Choice of Weapons.

I immediately identified with Parks. He had been raised in Kansas like me and found himself transplanted to Minnesota, again just like me. He became an acclaimed photographer for Life Magazine and in my college years produced the first blaxploitation film Shaft.

Parks was as proper as Ali was ornery thus the choice of his Book Title. His weapon was the camera recording its truths.

The beginning of his autobiography pulled me in immediately. He vividly recalled his Kansas youth and swimming with friends at a local stream in the summer sun……as I recall the scene. He’s perhaps ten. Some police come around and ask him and his friends to help them search for a body up stream. A drowned man is suspected of being under the water and the police don’t want to do the grubby work of finding it but the black kids are handy. Parks and his friends find the body. It was a little traumatizing but that was OK. They were just little colored kids.

What a small world it is. I just looked for that scene with a Google Search. It led me to the name Wing Young Huie a Duluth born, Minnesota photographer who wrote the Introduction to the more recent edition of Park’s Book. I went to a Tweed Museum exhibition a few years ago of Huie’s work. I was particularly keen to visit it because a decade ago my sister asked him to shoot pictures of my Mother a few months before she was placed in a 24 hour memory care residence.

Mr. Huie took quite a lot of pictures and gave them to my sister at no charge. I’ve wanted to write a coffee table book about Mom and her desire to be an artist since Alzheimers stole her away. Here’s the tentative frontpiece I imagined:

The title comes from a college art teacher who discouraged her from attempting abstract art because he didn’t think she had a talent for it.

The larger painting behind her in the photo now hangs in our living room. Here’s a better look: