|photo by Toni Parks
When I read the news last week that Gordon Parks had died in his New York City apartment, a deep sadness came over me. Not that, at the age of 93, his passing could be unexpected. Rather, that a giant of our times was gone, one of the truly great men I’ve been privileged to know in my life.
I first met Gordon in 1997, when I was researching my book, Black Genius: And the American Experience. We were both natives of Kansas, though the segregated world he’d known on the prairies was a world apart from the suburb where I grew up. Gordon had overcome obstacles that would long ago have claimed just about anybody else, overcome dire poverty and racism to become a veritable “Renaissance man”: photographer, writer, filmmaker, artist, musician. There was no field of artistic endeavor that Gordon Parks did not attempt successfully.
“The apartment where Parks has lived since the 1970s resonates creativity,” I wrote in my book. “Nearly every inch of wall space is filled with pictures: family members (including two great-grandchildren), illustrations for Parks’s poetry, and images from his twenty-four years as Life magazine’s first black staff photographer. From one wall, Muhammad Ali faces off against two paintings by Chagall. In the far corner of the living room, surrounded by a curtain of Chinese tapestry, is a Bechstein grand piano. On a coffee table are proofs for a 350-page retrospective book. It was to be published simultaneously with a Parks photo exhibition….”
He was an elegantly handsome man with a thick, snow-white mustache and long, thin, delicate hands. His soft-spoken demeanor belied his toughness, for in the course of his life he’d been willing to fight many powers-that-be for the principles he believed in. His closest friends were often women, and he maintained strong relationships with several ex-wives until the end. He’d known much pain, and transformed it into compassion.
Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali had been his companions, but so had the boy Flavio from the Brazilian slums and a welfare family called the Fontenelles. His unforgettable photographic essays gave them all a greater grace. “You see,” he explained to me, “somebody who’s let down their curtains to allow you into their lives, and trusted you, they become part of your family. To the extent that you know you will be with them forever if they deserve it.”
In my heart, and for thousands of others, Gordon Parks will live on, a man of courage and integrity, above all of humanity. Let me close this brief tribute, with a quote from one of his autobiographical works.
“…for a long time I have entertained the impossibility of putting each one of us into a tiny room; of letting us remain silent for a moment, and then, separately, speak the absolute truth of ourselves, knowing the smallest lie could hurl us into fiery space. There we might realize how common our needs are; that hunger, hatred, and love are the same wherever we find them; that the earth, in relation to our time upon it, is hardly the size of a grain of sand. Perhaps then, in the justice of understanding, we could escape the past that imprisons us.”– To Smile in Autumn, Gordon Parks.
March 13, 2006