March 10, 2006
Gordon Parks showed us who we were
Three years ago, I wrote this short note to Gordon Parks:
March 3, 2003
Dear Mr. Parks,
You have shown me many things, as any good teacher should. I first read The Learning Tree when I was seventeen. I was scared, drunken and acted like I knew everything so I wouldn’t have to see I knew nothing.
That book so affected me that over the years I sought out your work, from your photographs to your movies and autobiographies. They taught that it was necessary to question everything I had known to understand how to learn and grow. I am no longer drunken. I’ve learned that being scared is a human something that keeps me doing what I’ve been wired to believe I can’t.
My life would be much narrower and sadder had it not been for you. I want you to know how grateful I am for what you’ve done.
My best wishes and all my prayers,
My wife, daughter and I had just returned from northeast Oklahoma, where my mother-in-law owns an 80-acre farm. We had been to the farm many times, nearly always passing through Ft. Scott, KS, the town where Parks lived until he was fifteen.
As we approached the town, I often thought of Parks — my wife and child softly snoring in the car, the dogs asleep. It was not odd that a town that had borne such a talented son had only acknowledged him long after he had become an icon to so many. It was quite common, I thought, given the Midwest’s silent denial of racism. I was happy that Ft. Scott finally put up signs indicating that Parks had lived there. At the same time, it seemed sad. I couldn’t help but think it meant Parks had become a Ft. Scott tourist commodity in an age when tourism is the only growth business in small towns besides state-sponsored incarceration — prisons.
Regardless, Ft. Scott made me think of Parks. He had been my hero for years, if heroes can be flesh-and-blood. His life was one I wanted. He did whatever he wanted to do. He was good at all of it: working blue-collar jobs, writing prose and poetry, taking pictures, helping young artists and making movies. No one, it seems, had ever told him he couldn’t do what he set his mind to. Or maybe they did, and he did whatever he wanted despite them. Or, better yet, perhaps it never occurred to him he couldn’t.
Who knows another person’s interior? I can only know him from his work. He was more than a writer or photographer. He understood the way a photographer takes control of the subject. In the time it took the flash takes to fade, he controlled poverty, racism, classism and a hundred other injustices. He also understood how the photo takes control of the viewer and inundates them in the artist’s vision. He was much like a good journalist: He told Americans about themselves without flinching, and he understood that he was an American, too.
Through the years, I read every newspaper and magazine article about Parks I could. I watched his movies, sat up with surprise at his cameo in the remake of Shaft with Samuel L. Jackson, when Jackson finds Parks sitting happily at a table in the Lenox Lounge.
More personally, Parks inspired me when I tackled something new. He was a renaissance man in a world that tells its inhabitants that specialization, doing one thing well, is the only way to success. The structures in my head told me I would not succeed. Gordon Parks told me, I imagined, that it didn’t matter, that the only success was living and doing.
Parks, of course, had more talent in a sparkle of his eye than I could ever have. But that only fueled the inspiration he was (and will be). When I read he died of cancer at 93, I was sitting at my living room table. My daughter was getting ready for school and my wife was asleep. I was glad to be alone. I found myself crying.
Generally, I do not join the crowd of mourners when someone famous dies. Hero worship does not come easy to a seasoned journalist. But I have never felt pangs of grief and sadness for someone I never met as I did when I read about Gordon Parks. And more appropriately, I understood that I was only one of millions. I was undistinguished, a part of a very large crowd. It felt good to be one of many, of the ordinary, because ordinary was what Parks valorized.
At the same time, as I sat there, sobbing, the taste of electricity in my mouth, I felt special. I lost a friend, mentor, an icon.
And I felt selfish. I never sent that note. I didn’t think that what I had to say was good enough, or even that he would read it.
Patrick Dobson can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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