Gordon Parks at home in Manhattan, 2000.
Weapon of Choice
"Gypsy woman told my mama, before I was born / You got a boy-child comin', gonna be a son-of-a-gun." Gordon Parks's life makes Willie Dixon's old blues song "Hoochie Coochie Man" sound like a documentary. In 1910, a fortuneteller traveling through rural Kansas predicted the arrival and rich life of Andrew Jackson Parks's seventh son - "You're going to have another child - and he's going to be a very special one." That's how the story was told to Gordon Parks by his older brother Clemmie. Gordon, born a couple years after the auspicious pronouncement, was Poppa Jack Parks's 15th child, the 10th with his second wife, Sarah. And the gypsy lady was right. He would become one of the most celebrated African-American artists of the 20th century, accomplished and revered as a photographer, writer, composer and movie director.
But the child's destiny was by no means obvious. After Sarah died, Parks, then 15, was sent from the family farm in Fort Scott, Kan. (he'd remember it as "the mecca of bigotry"), to live in Minnesota with an older sister and her resentful husband. It wasn't long before he was thrown into the street, hungry and broke, with nothing but a switchblade in his pocket. In the years that followed, he roamed the country, tackling a dizzying array of the grueling jobs available to a young black man without a high school diploma, including whorehouse piano player, waiter, busboy, traveling jazz band musician, Civilian Conservation Corps grunt and House of David basketball player.
It wasn't until he was 27 that Parks's future began to reveal itself. While working as a Pullman porter, crisscrossing America on the North Coast Limited, he became transfixed by Dorothea Lange's photos in a passenger's left-behind magazine. Soon after, on a stop in Chicago, a newsreel of a sinking gunship and a personal appearance by its cameraman sealed his fate. After the train pulled into Seattle, Parks found his first camera, his "weapon of choice," in a pawnshop window. Parks's untrained talent was quickly recognized and encouraged. Dual career paths defined the course of his life: he shot fashion photography for money, while documenting poverty and injustice, first in Chicago's South Side ghettos. An exhibit of his photos won him a coveted Julius Rosenwald Fellowship, his ticket onto Roy Stryker's all-star team of white, mostly college-educated Farm Security Administration photographers, including Lange. After politics closed down the F.S.A. project, Stryker took Parks with him to the Office of War Information (O.W.I.). There, Parks's attempts to follow the Black 332nd Fighter Group into combat were stymied by government obstacles intended to minimize publicity for the black fliers.
It's at this point that Parks ended his first autobiography, "A Choice of Weapons" (1966). Since then, he has written three additional memoirs. "A Hungry Heart" finds the 93-year-old writer looking backward once more over the groundbreaking victories and painful losses of a long and productive life. In it, he tells old stories anew and revisits key episodes, adding fresh details and perspective in a stripped-down anecdotal style. This is not a book about photos, but about the people in the viewfinder.
Parks was a one-man wrecking crew of racial barriers. After the O.W.I. and jobs at Vogue and Standard Oil, he became Life's first black photographer. There he took on 52 assignments in his first 18 months alone. While Parks was photographing the black revolution, Malcolm X asked him to be godfather to one of his daughters (accepted) and Eldridge Cleaver invited him to serve as the Black Panthers' minister of information (turned down). In 1969, encouraged by John Cassavetes, he became the first black American to helm a major studio film when he wrote, directed and composed the soundtrack for the movie version of his coming-of-age novel, "The Learning Tree." His next film, "Shaft" ("Hotter than Bond, Cooler than Bullitt"), established the liberated image of the new black male action hero. Both films were named to the National Film Registry, "The Learning Tree" in the inaugural list of 25 films in 1989. (Sadly, it and "The Crowd," King Vidor's silent, are the only titles still unavailable in the United States on DVD.)
On the personal front, Parks failed to balance time on the road with a stable family life. Proud that he's remained friends with all three of his former wives, he's also honest about his weakness. His eye for beauty kept him in trouble: "Let's just say that if an attractive woman was dancing before me, I found it extremely difficult to allow her to dance alone." The greatest loss for Parks, the father of four, was the death of his older son, Gordon Jr., the director of "Superfly," killed in a plane crash while on location in Africa in 1979.
"A Hungry Heart," in addition to being a testimony to Parks's wit, sensitivities and vast armory of talents, is a treatise on the value of encouragement. The miracle of his life is what he's achieved with the opportunities he was given. In 1952, the conductor Dean Dixon, having premiered Parks's "Symphonic Set for Piano and Orchestra" in the courtyard of the Doge's Palace in Venice, told Time magazine: "We should hear more from Gordon Parks." Happily, we have again.
John Wranovics is the author of "Chaplin and Agee: The Untold Story of the Tramp, the Writer and the Lost Screenplay."