‘A hungry heart’

At 93, William Allen White Award-winner Gordon Parks still eager to tell stories

When Gordon Parks was growing up in Fort Scott, his mother told him never to give up. That advice sustained him through his mother’s death, leaving home, being homeless, and to an amazing life and career.

That’s the story and message told in his latest memoir, “A Hungry Heart.” Parks, a photographer, writer, composer and filmmaker, has written two previous memoirs of his life, so readers may ask why this one – and why now. Parks recently wrote not just this book, but one that contains more of his poetry and images, titled “Eyes with Winged Thoughts.” Both books came out Nov. 20 – 10 days before his 93rd birthday. They’re his 17th and 18th books.

“A Hungry Heart” begins with an event few authors experience. Parks is unable to sleep after the excitement of his 89th birthday party. As he contemplates turning 90, his thoughts turn to the many aspects of his life he still wants to explore.

Perhaps the most important event of Parks’ life was his birth. He’s told it before, and he retells it here: He was born dead. A young white doctor plunged the bloody baby into icy water to revive him. In gratitude, the baby’s mother named her son Gordon, after the physician. And so begins a history of fighting for the life he wanted.

Search for beauty

Growing up in segregated Fort Scott was a contrast for Parks. At home, he had a large, loving family. At school, he could not play on sports teams.

His high school yearbook shows photos of black students grouped together along the bottom of the page. He grew bitter about life in Kansas, and when he left Fort Scott at the age of 15, he was happy to be heading to live with a sister in Minnesota. There he lived with cold weather and an equally frosty brother-in-law.

Soon, Parks was on the move again – this time to roam the streets of the Twin Cities until his first real job: playing the piano in a whorehouse. By the time he reflects on his 90 years, he’s composed “a piano concerto, a symphony, two sonatas, a ballet and three film scores.” These days, he’s at work with cellist Yo Yo Ma on yet another composition.

But music was only one outlet for Parks. Like many young men growing up in the 1920s, he took whatever job he could find. Years in the conservation corps, working as a busboy, picking up gigs with bands and odd jobs to feed his wife and son finally led to a search for any beauty he could find.

He was fascinated with images and began capturing them with a camera he purchased at a pawnshop for $7.50. With the same combination of skill and guts that had served him well in the past, Parks talked his way into shooting fashion photography.

Once again, though, he was on a path with a twist.

Looping life

Parks took that same search for beauty into a job shooting in Washington, D.C., for the Farm Security Administration and working with some of the most celebrated photojournalists of the era. Washington was as segregated as any place Parks had lived, and he responded by using the division to feed his work. During this time, he took what would become his most famous photo. In “American Gothic,” the face of Ella Watson embodied all the agony and hope of growing up poor and black in America.

There’s a roller coaster in Parks’ memoirs. Again and again, he’s denied opportunities because of his race. Yet he persists and, as the book progresses, someone gives him a chance. The reader gets the impression Parks harbored more anger than he now remembers. It would be hard not to feel that sense of outrage over being blocked at the front door and told to use the back entrance or being told that a magazine “doesn’t hire Negroes for anything; not even for sweeping floors.” It almost seems Parks was being tested over and over. He doesn’t give up, and within days, he’s the first black photographer at Vogue magazine.

The ride that is Parks’ life is intriguing, too, for the loops it makes. He keeps adding to his list of careers without abandoning any. He moves back and forth between poverty and wealth, black and white, musicians and photographers, violence and beauty, family and fame. It is Parks’ gift as a writer that makes this all plausible and readable. Interspersed with stories of his career is the saga of three marriages, children and lifelong friendships.

Something special

Parks was a contemporary of Richard Wright, and the two authors became friends as they shared their heritages and their hope that other black men born into racism and poverty could end up freely traveling the world. Like Wright, Parks has a gift for capturing the characters that bring an era to life.

The high-fashion models, the war heroes, the rural poor, the Black Panthers, the famous, the fortunate and Parks’ family all integrate his memoirs and make the book more than a chronology of one life. His challenge to the reader is the same as the challenge he gave those who told him no: Give me a chance, and I’ll show you something special. His style is one of persistence rather than power. He photographs the rebels of his day, but rather than joining them, he goes to Hollywood to produce “Shaft,” a film about a strong, handsome black man who is a new kind of hero.

Yes, much like the author himself.

Parks may yet write another memoir. He still has stories to tell. This collection ends with a visit from the mayor of Fort Scott, who brings gifts that take their place among Parks’ collection of 53 honorary doctorates, an Emmy, a National Medal of the Arts and numerous other awards. In a place of honor, Parks put his high school and college diplomas from Kansas.

‘Nothing could banish love’

While compiling and writing this memoir, Parks thought of people and events that prose could not convey, so he put those things into poetry and photographs.

“Eyes with Winged Thoughts” stands on its merit, though, and is not meant to be a companion piece to his memoirs. This latest collection of poems and images is about the current phase of his life. Parks is now contemplating the essence of life — its beginnings, endings and the being in charge of it all. Yet the collection also shows a man very much in touch with the world.

“Bottomless Tuesday” is an ode to the horrific events of Sept. 11, 2001, and “To Mourne – Yet Celebrate” honors the passing of Pope John Paul II. The message of hope overcoming all odds permeates this book as well as his earlier works.

Among the more powerful images is a black hand reaching out of the water. The poem, “No Apologies,” on the facing page reads: “Fate holds no reasons to frown at what Providence granted me. My thanks remain uncountable : So my heart lifts praise to a smiling autumn – To those fallen years that no longer exist … Crowned in the confusion that hammered my journey, One golden thing stood: Love – serene love. Nothing could banish love from my wilderness.”

It’s interesting to note that while Gordon Parks has been referring to the autumn of his life for decades, he refrains from talking about his “winter.” That suggests that at the age of 93, he is not yet finished writing, photographing and living. That’s to be expected from someone who learned early on not to give up.