Gordon Parks’s New Books

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Gordon Parks defied the odds stacked against him from the very start. “I was born dead,� he writes. “But a young White doctor plunged my blood-soaked remains into a tub of icy water and miraculously gave me life. My mother had expressed her gratitude by giving me his name. Dr. Gordon was the savior whose color had nothing to do with his giving me, a Black child, a right to life.�

As a legendary photojournalist, Gordon Parks witnessed and documented the defining events and people of the twentieth century. 

As a Black man born into poverty and racism in 1912, and raised in a family who preached achievement while practicing love, Parks also lived the American dream and played a role in changing the world. Never one to rest on his laurels, Parks looks back on the nine eventful decades of his extraordinary professional and personal life in A Hungry Heart: A Memoir (Atria Books; November 1, 2005; $26.00; Hardcover). He compliments this sweeping work of reflection and reckoning with a new collection of his art over fifty luminous photographs complimented by nearly sixty haunting poems Eyes with Winged Thoughts: Poetry & Images (Atria Books; November 1, 2005; $27.95; Hardcover).  

The youngest of fifteen children, Gordon Parks defied the odds stacked against him from the very start.  “I was born dead,â€? he writes.  “But a young White doctor plunged my blood-soaked remains into a tub of icy water and miraculously gave me life. My mother had expressed her gratitude by giving me his name.  Dr. Gordon was the savior whose color had nothing to do with his giving me, a Black child, a right to life.â€?  The remarkable fact of his birth aside, Parks entered the world at a disadvantage in Fort Scott, Kansas, a prairie town marked by scorching summers, icy winters, occasional tornadoes, and entrenched bigotry. 

As a student denied participation in sports and activities due to his skin color, Parks endured racial hatred. But, thanks to his hardworking, good-hearted, honorable parents, he was nurtured on pride and determination.

Parks lost his mother, Sarah, when he was just fifteen. Yet, as he affirms in A Hungry Heart, her legacy of hope carried him through the worst of times and inspired him to overcome formidable obstacles. In Eyes with Winged Thoughts, he celebrates Sarah’s “most relentless warning� in a poem he simply calls “Momma�: “Son, don’t ever come home blaming your skin’s blackness for tumbling you onward. If a white boy can do something worth doing, remember, you can do it too.�

After his mother’s death, and following her wishes, Parks left Kansas for a chance at a better life in Saint Paul, Minnesota.  Moving in with his sister Peggy, he faced a harsh winter and cold, hard brother-in-law.  By sixteen, Parks was on his own, playing piano in a whorehouse until he landed a respectable job as a busboy.  Working nights, he managed to rent a room and stay in school, even getting elected captain of the basketball team.  Then, the Depression came and took his job, stopped his studies, and injured his spirits.  Fortunately, Parks soon found a better busboy gig at the Lowry Hotel, known for attracting classy musical acts.  Seizing on an empty dining room to sit down at the grand piano and play an original composition, he was interrupted by the leader of the Larry Duncan Orchestra. In a flash, Parks became the first Black musician to join a famed White orchestra. Although the tour ended on disastrous note with Duncan leaving his musicians stranded and broke in New York City it would set the course for Parks’ future as a trailblazer.

In vivid, riveting, unflinching detail, A Hungry Heart follows Parks from Harlem, where he nearly starved in a rat-infested apartment, to his service with the Civilian Conservation Corps, through a life of groundbreaking achievements. 

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