Last Updated September 5, 2023.
In A Choice of Weapons, Gordon Parks Sr. chronicles the black experience in America from the 1920s to the beginning of World War II. Parks was the first African American to write and direct a Hollywood film and to be hired by Life magazine as a photographer, and his photography has left an enduring legacy. Throughout it all, he fought against racism, discrimination, and poverty. The book is an autobiography and follows Parks’s life from struggle to eventual success as a photographer. Throughout his story, Parks chooses to fight with his own “weapon of choice”—a camera.
The book covers fifteen years of Parks’s life. It begins with the death of his mother when he was just sixteen years old, which caused Parks to move from Missouri to Saint Paul, Minnesota, to live with his sister. The first few chapters go into the past to detail Parks’s teenage years growing up in Kansas, a story that is covered in greater detail in his film The Learning Tree. Following a fight with his brother-in-law, who threw him out at the end of the first week, Parks became homeless. Winter was just setting in, and Parks had to learn to fend for himself and survive on the streets, riding in streetcars all night to shelter from the cold. This winter marked the beginning of a lifetime of poverty and hardship, and the experience also shaped much of Parks’s future work, causing him to fight for the rights of the poor and needy. He says,
I suffered first as a child from discrimination, poverty. . . . So, I think it was a natural follow from that that I should use my camera to speak for people who are unable to speak for themselves.
In a cruel, violent world, Parks tried to earn enough money to stay in high school and feed himself. He worked as a waiter for an exclusive club; as a musical composer, which led to him touring with a band; as a piano player; as a busboy; and as a basketball player. His journey took him from Saint Paul to Chicago, Harlem, and Washington in the midst of the Great Depression. He experienced continual poverty and varying degrees of discriminatory laws against African Americans. Parks later joined a New Deal project, the Civilian Conservation Corps, which finally gave him some financial stability and allowed him to marry. Despite never knowing where his next meal might come from, Parks remained resourceful and creative, and never gave up hope.
Throughout the autobiography, Parks’s creative spirit is shown through his love of music and art. He writes about how he began to view photography as a suitable lens to capture the plight of African Americans and the reality of poverty in America. As he notes,
Think in terms of images and words. They can be mighty powerful when they are fitted together properly.
Having bought a camera and taught himself to use it, Parks, at the age of twenty-five, began to consider photography as a career. Parks’s first big break in photography came when he had the opportunity to work as a fashion photographer for a women’s clothing store in Saint Paul. Through this work, he found other fashion assignments in Chicago and eventually received a Julius Rosenwald Foundation fellowship. With the support of the fellowship, Parks chose to work with a government agency campaigning for the poor during the Depression. His photography of the time period serves as a historical record of social and cultural experiences of the poor across the country. During this period, Parks had the opportunity to photograph major...
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figures in African American history, like Richard Wright. Toward the end of the book, Parks chronicles his decision to follow the 332nd Fighter Group, a group of black pilots in World War II. Sadly, Parks was not given permission to accompany them to Europe as a photographer.
The themes of the book are predominantly the difficulties faced by America’s poor and black communities—that despite there being “ladders” to lift themselves out of poverty in the form of New Deal projects, the road out of poverty remained rocky. Parks strives to honor his mother’s values, to put hard work above anger and hate, but he notes that this is difficult when it seems society is trying to hold a person down.