Wednesday, March 8, 2006

Gordon Parks 1912-2006

We’ve lost another class act.

Gordon Parks, who captured the struggles and triumphs of black America as a photographer for Life magazine and then became Hollywood’s first major black director with “The Learning Tree” and the hit “Shaft,” died Tuesday, a family member said. He was 93.


Parks was born Nov. 30, 1912, in Fort Scott, Kan., the youngest of 15 children. In his 1990 autobiography, “Voices in the Mirror,” he remembered it as a world of racism and poverty, but also a world where his parents gave their children love, discipline and religious faith.

He went through a series of jobs as a teen and young man, including piano player and railroad dining car waiter. The breakthrough came when he was about 25, when he bought a used camera in a pawn shop for $7.50. He became a freelance fashion photographer, went on to Vogue magazine and then to Life in 1948.

“Reflecting now, I realize that, even within the limits of my childhood vision, I was on a search for pride, meanwhile taking measurable glimpses of how certain blacks, who were fed up with racism, rebelled against it,” he wrote.

When he accepted an award from Wichita State University in May 1991, he said it was “another step forward in my making peace with Kansas and Kansas making peace with me.”

“I dream terrible dreams, terribly violent dreams,” he said. “The doctors say it’s because I suppressed so much anger and hatred from my youth. I bottled it up and used it constructively.”


Two years ago, Fort Scott Community College established the Gordon Parks Center for Culture and Diversity.

Jill Warford, its executive director, said Tuesday that Parks “had a very rough start in life and he overcame so much, but was such a good person and kind person that he never let the bad things that happened to him make him bitter.”

I had the honor of meeting Mr. Parks when he was a guest at the William Inge Festival in 1996. He was a man of infinite charm and grace and unfailingly polite to everyone he met. He was born and raised in a time and place that treated him with contempt solely because of the color of his skin, he rose above it and showed that dignity and talent can be a force that can overcome the worst of our nature.

Thank you, Mr. Parks.