Nearly a year after father’s death, son visits Gordon Parks’ boyhood home
David Parks hasn’t read many of the media accounts lauding his father, Gordon, since his death last March.
He already knows what they say.
“The thing is, all the stuff being written about him has been written about him for the last 30 or 40 years,” David Parks says. “It’s the same thing. That’s one of the things that really got him a little depressed in the end is they kept asking the same questions – nothing new. But that’s what happens when you’re a star.”
The attention the elder Parks and Fort Scott native got after he died at age 93 certainly helped to prove his stardom.
He’ll be getting more attention this spring as the Kansas Center for the Book sponsors “Kansas Reads ‘The Learning Tree,'” an effort to get as many people as possible to read and discuss Parks’ signature novel. It’s a mostly autobiographical tale that examines his early life and the struggles he faced as a black man in Kansas.
The Lawrence Public Library, 707 Vt., will join in on the event with a series of lectures and book discussions that kick off this week with David Parks, one of Gordon Parks’ four children. He’ll discuss his father’s life and works at 7 p.m. Monday.
David Parks, who is 62 and lives in Austin, Texas, is a filmmaker in his own right, having done production work on many of his father’s movies, which included “Shaft” and “Leadbelly.” David also helped produce “Superfly,” which his brother, Gordon Parks Jr., directed, and he wrote “GI Diary,” about his experience in Vietnam.
His current projects include a movie about buffalo soldiers. He’s glad to carry the family torch lighted by his father, considered by many to be a “Renaissance man” because of his work in photography, movies, novels, poetry, painting and music.
“I equate the old man with people like Willie Nelson, only because they’re legends in their own time,” Parks says. “There are not too many legends that are alive.”
But that doesn’t mean Gordon Parks was always comfortable with his fame. Parks says his father’s last major traveling exhibition, “Half Past Autumn,” made him realize that. He didn’t like the constant attention he got when he traveled around, giving talks about his photos.
“He said, ‘God, being famous is tough,'” David Parks recalls. “And I said, ‘Pops, you’ve always been famous, but you’ve been too busy to realize you were famous.’ He said, ‘Yeah, man, this is rough. I wouldn’t put this on my worst enemy.'”
‘One of the fellas’
But for as famous as his father was, David Parks says he was still an easygoing guy and a “family man.” He often played tennis and skied with family members.
“He was real cool,” David Parks says. “He’s like one of the guys. He’s not the kind of father you normally think of. He’d party with us, party with my friends, party with my brother’s friends. He came home, and he liked to be around young folks. He’d become one of the fellas.”
And that, Parks says, was a trait that helped his father’s career.
“When you’re involved in communication and trying to document life, you have to be able to blend in and get the confidence of these people,” David Parks says. “He got next to his subjects and tried to stay out of the way, and he keyed in on them rather than having them key in on him.”
Through the project organized by the Kansas Center for the Book, Parks says he hopes Kansans can help understand their history of racial discrimination by reading “The Learning Tree,” and that it might spur them to take further steps toward bettering race relations.
“The book captures the heart and soul of Americana in that period of time,” Parks says. “It’s a very powerful book and a very honest book.”
Maria Butler, community relations coordinator at the Lawrence Public Library, says the book is something all Kansans should read.
“It’s an important story by an important Kansan,” Butler says. “Parks was just an amazing person. When you read ‘The Learning Tree,’ you see how he started, and it’s just pretty awesome to know what he did with life.”
She says having David Parks in Lawrence will give those who attend the Tuesday event a firsthand view of Gordon Parks’ life.
“I think he can provide some insight into his father’s life as a whole, but specifically about the book – how writing it affected Gordon, why he wrote it, what he hoped to accomplish with the book, and whether he succeeded in accomplishing that,” Butler says.
Despite the discrimination Gordon Parks experienced in Fort Scott and wrote about in “The Learning Tree,” he ultimately wanted to be buried in the town where he was born.
David Parks recalls the moment his father told him where he wanted to be buried.
“He said to me before he died, ‘I want to go home,'” David Parks recalls. “Home for me, when I was 1, I lived in White Plains, New York … He said, ‘I want to go home.’ I said, ‘OK, so you want to go home. So, White Plains?’ He said, ‘No, dummy. I want to go back to Kansas.’
“He did have a reckoning with his childhood problems growing up there. Kansas was pretty tough in those days. When you read ‘The Learning Tree,’ you can see the problems they had in those days. But he came back. He started to warm up. I think all roads lead back to where you were born.
“I don’t care how much of a hard time you had, you still have a yearning for where you were born.”
Other events as part of “Kansas Reads ‘The Learning Tree'”
- “Gordon Parks: Learning Tree Experience,” lecture by John Edgar Tidwell, professor of English at Kansas University, 7 p.m. Feb. 5.
- Book discussions, 7 p.m. Feb. 13, Feb. 19 and Feb. 21.
- Musical tribute to Gordon Parks by Lemuel Sheppard of Pittsburg, 7 p.m. Feb. 20.