Gordon Parks, Sr., developed a successful career as a photographer before writing nonfiction, poetry, fiction, and music. Born on a farm in Kansas, the youngest of Sarah and Andrew Parks’s fifteen children, Parks spent the first sixteen years of his life in the close-knit safety of a loving family. When his mother died, however, he was sent to St. Paul, Minnesota, where his circumstances changed drastically. After briefly living with a sister and her husband, he dropped out of high school and became independent, working at a variety of jobs from playing piano in a brothel to playing semiprofessional basketball.
In 1933, at the age of twenty-one, Parks joined the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) and married Sally Alvis. When his time with the CCC ended, he became a railroad pullman porter. It was during this time that he bought his first camera and began to learn the skills of photography. A series of photographs with which he chronicled ghetto life in Chicago won him a Julius Rosenwald Fellowship in 1941. He moved to Washington, D.C., to work at the Farm Security Administration in 1942, and, after devoting himself for a time to the reading he had missed when his formal education was interrupted, he became a correspondent for the Office of War Information.
His first book, Flash Photography, had a long gestation period during which he repeatedly reworded the book. The experience nearly convinced him that he was not a writer, but he did continue to write short pieces. After one piece was published in Life magazine, he became a staff photographer there from 1948 to 1972. His many exceptional contributions to Life include photojournalistic pieces on crime, gangs, black activist organizations and their members, and civil rights.
In 1963, he saw the publication of his first work of fiction, The Learning Tree, a story about a black family during the 1920’s. The novel recounts the experiences of Newt Winger, an adolescent at the point of...
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