A Choice of Weapons Essay - Critical Context

Gordon Parks Sr.

Critical Context

A Choice of Weapons is very much in the tradition of such classic African-American autobiographies as Richard Wright’s Black Boy (1945), Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1970), and Anne Moody’s Coming of Age in Mississippi (1968). Like A Choice of Weapons, none of these works was written specifically for young adult audiences, but all have great appeal for that audience. Wright’s Black Boy created the model for African-American autobiography, and the comparisons between Black Boy and A Choice of Weapons are unavoidable. For both Parks and Wright, learning and art are means of escaping poverty, injustice, and violence. Both are talented, but neither has a model for escape. Both eventually find an appropriate weapon to fight back—Wright through literature and Parks through photography. Both value art as a means of effecting social change. Both are alienated outsiders finding few resources in their families or communities for comfort or help. Parks expresses his admiration for Wright’s work several times in A Choice of Weapons; appropriately, his highest praise is for Wright’s Twelve Million Black Voices (1941), which combines text and photographs to create a powerful work.

A Choice of Weapons is also very much in the tradition of young adult coming-of-age fiction. It has much in common with works such as Parks’s The Learning Tree and Mildred Taylor’s Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry (1974); perhaps the strongest theme in such fiction is the faith in education and learning as the sole means of escaping poverty and injustice.

Finally, A Choice of Weapons is in the tradition of narratives about aspiring artists, talented outsiders who strive to make sense of their experience and to transcend their surroundings through art. Parks’s devotion to his craft, his struggle to achieve, his lengthy apprenticeship, and his dedication are well described.