His death at age 93 marked the passing of a creative spirit of almost
incomprehensible scope. Here, one of the many photographers he inspired looks
at the work and world he left behind.
As the six pallbearers hoisted the dark brown wooden casket onto their shoulders, the voice of the occupant echoed off the walls of the sanctuary at the Riverside Church in Harlem:
"This is no farewell, but a gathering of those to act and make the crying of others much easier to bear." Thanks to a documentary projected at the front of the church, Gordon Parks spoke the last word at his own funeral, giving comfort to those who had come to bid him good-bye as he went to join his long-departed parents, Sarah and Jackson Parks, and the son who shared his name.
The life of a child that began in the poverty of a clapboard house on the Kansas prairie ended in the opulence of a high-rise apartment opposite the United Nations. The pews of the church at his funeral sparkled with the likes of Gloria Vanderbilt and Lenny Kravitz. Smiling, while wiping away tears, I thought back to a time a few years earlier when I spent an evening with him in his 10th-floor apartment at the United Nations Plaza, a thousand miles and nearly a hundred years from his humble beginnings in Fort Scott, Kansas. On that night he told me about a life that began with a prophecy that was kick-started when a quick-thinking doctor plunged his stillborn body into a pan of ice water. "I started screaming and I haven't stopped," he recalled, laughing joyously.
Gordon Parks was a work in progress until the day he died, a dapper mass of creative energy, adrift in a boundless universe of his own creation. His was a restless spirit, guided by instincts and the ever present voice of his mother telling him that he could "do anything as well as a white boy."
"And if you can't," she had said, "don't come home."
He was unique among that generation of post-depression era photographers at Life magazine who documented America's emergence from the shadows of social disparity and racial disharmony to its ascendancy as a military and economic giant. From the beginning, he was one of the "others" who often were the subjects of Life's photographers. His success in bridging the two worlds eventually made him a "stranger in one and social oddity in another."
Today, with Oprah more powerful than Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham in her heyday, and Time Warner, the parent company of Life magazine, headed by an African-American, it's difficult to imagine the America in which Parks grew up. It was a country where lynching in the South was
as common as church socials, and often celebrated with the same festive spirit. Meanwhile, in the North, whites lived a life of self-serving denial. Parks's arrival on the scene was not universally celebrated on either side of the color line. But his presence was something that could not be denied, and, in time, it helped change the way that white America looked at blacks and how blacks looked at themselves. His marquee successes paved the way for those who followed.