A Choice of Weapons

After a hardscrabble life in the Depression, Gordon Parks picked up a camera instead of a gun. But as a massive retrospective of his work reveals, his sympathies have often remained with those who went the other way.

In the early scenes of Gordon Parks's novel The Learning Tree, a wayward teen named Marcus suffers through Christmas in the Spit's School for Boys, a juvenile reformatory in the desolate Kansas of the 1920s. "Marcus Savage was black and tough," Parks writes; his mother is dead, his father is a drunk, and the boy has an oversized body and an undersized intellect for his years.

Caught stealing apples by a neighboring farmer who tried to whip him and got beaten in turn, Marcus takes to Spit's School with a despairing nihilism. When the Reverend Broadnap comes for a Christmas visit with fruit and candy, and prays for God to "'wash his black sins away in the white snows of... holy Christmas,'" Marcus turns vituperative. "'Shut up ! Shut up!,' Marcus shouted, 'and git the hell out'a here... I don't want'a hear none of your Uncle Tom prayin' over me!'"

Meanwhile, across town in the warmth of the modest Winger home, Newton and his family exchange gifts: a blouse, a robe, a pipe, a dictionary for the boy. Though Newt too had been in the apple orchard, he avoided the assault, and with his mother's prodding he has pledged to work weekends on the farm.

Yet not every day is Christmas, and in the course of The Learning Tree, Newt will see black men shot in the back by the town's sadistic sheriff. A white guidance counselor will turn him away from the college-preparatory classes that she considers useless for his future as a porter. Yet Newt, with his mother's good counsel, takes it all in turn.

Gordon Parks, born one of 15 children to upstanding Methodist dirt farmers in Fort Scott, Kansas, drew heavily on his boyhood in writing The Learning Tree, and their trials through segregation speak to his own experiences. And though Parks identifies with Newt and the Wingers' forbearance, Marcus--a resentful, despondent realist--makes a strong case for embracing despair. Perhaps his case is the stronger one.

The retrospective of Gordon Parks's career, comprising 220 photographs, poems, and compositions--currently on exhibit at the recently reopened Minnesota Museum of American Art--demonstrates this same tension, time and again. In more than 50 years of work, and in a half-dozen mediums, Parks has brought a generous and searingly honest aesthetic to case studies of people who have crossed over to the other side of hope: slum dwellers in Brazil, gang members in Harlem, criminals in Chicago. Parks's first memoir, A Choice of Weapons, lays out the argument for why the author took to a pawn-store camera over a six-gun--though as Parks's amazing odyssey makes clear, the choice has not been uncomplicated, and he's had an uncomfortably close acquaintance with poverty, racism, and crime. Parks has considered the cul-de-sacs his life could have taken; he has seen the Marcus in himself and turned away.

What Parks has done instead is produce as prolific and varied a body of work as can be readily imagined, and in the process he's accumulated a biography that defies easy summary. Parks has photographed for the Farm Security Administration, Vogue, and Life; he's written 16 books of poetry, autobiography, and fiction (the latest of which, Half Past Autumn, contains the material from this traveling retrospective); he's composed for solo piano, symphony, and the ballet; and he's directed a half-dozen movies, including the first major studio release by an African American.

Born in 1912, Parks attended a segregated elementary school in Kansas; the high school, though ostensibly integrated, barred black students from athletics and school events. He was 16 years old when his mother, Sarah, died. The moral compass of the family, she'd arranged for him to join his older sister Peggy and her husband in St. Paul. His "father's farewell," Parks writes in the autobiography Voices in the Mirror, "was muted and tautly drawn... 'Just mind your mother's teaching and you'll make out all right,'" he said.

Parks would, and he did.

Yet in the shorter term, Parks clashed with his brother-in-law, and one night just a few weeks into his stay, the man threw him out of the house and into subzero weather. Parks had two dollars in his pocket and a cardboard suitcase. For another week, school would be closed for the Christmas break. He spent these days homeless, bouncing between Jim Williams's pool hall during the day and the trolley cars at night. One morning, hungry and broke, Parks drew a knife on one of the conductors, and then, in shame, offered to sell it to him in exchange for breakfast. A few days later as school restarted, Parks fought a skinny dog for a pigeon and won; he promptly defeathered the bird, roasted it over a paper fire, and ate it. In the months that followed, Parks found a somewhat remunerative job playing piano in a St. Paul brothel until a fatal stabbing closed the house.

Parks dropped out of high school, and in the ensuing years, he cleared tables as a busboy at the Minneapolis Club, cleaned a flophouse in Chicago (where he nearly shot the manager after being stiffed on a paycheck), and toured one winter with a semiprofessional basketball team. While Parks was busing tables in a Chicago hotel, a white bandleader heard him playing the piano and invited him on tour, eventually depositing him in New York City and stranding him there. At the advice of the band's drummer, Parks took the A Train all the way to 145th Street. "That was the highest number," he writes. "Best to think high at a time like that." Unfortunately, after a few weeks of unemployment, Parks was forced to sink to a lower high; he started making deliveries for a dope dealer.

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