A Choice of Weapons

by Gordon Parks Sr.

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A Choice of Weapons is a remarkable work that is appropriate for young adult readers for several reasons. The book is extremely well written and stylistically very appropriate for a broad young adult audience. Aside from a prologue and a few flashbacks in the first two chapters, Parks’s narration is strictly chronological. The sentences are varied enough to be satisfying but are relatively simple and readable. The chapters are short and, for the most part, self-contained. Parks describes many events in the book, and at times the pace is frenetic; detailed description and analysis are kept to a minimum. Specialized knowledge of the period or locale, however, is unnecessary for appreciating this autobiography.

A Choice of Weapons also provides the young adult reader with an excellent documentary history of an important period in American history. The work spans the years from 1928 to 1943, providing the reader with an African American’s perspective on the 1920’s, on the stock market crash, on the Great Depression, on the New Deal programs (Parks’s accounts of African Americans in the CCC, the WPA, and the FSA are fascinating), and on the segregated military in World War II. Rarely is such a perspective available. Parks also presents an unusual perspective because of his travels. Initially, he includes much about African-American experiences in border states (on the border between the North and the South) in the early twentieth century, and near the end of the book Parks includes much about the racism that he encountered in the South, especially in Washington, D.C. The bulk of the autobiography, however, is set in the North, and the nuances in the treatment of African Americans in St. Paul, Chicago, Kansas City, New York City, and Detroit provide valuable information. Few works provide such geographic diversity.

A Choice of Weapons is a far more unified work than a typical autobiography. It begins with a powerful prologue that describes Parks, by 1965 a successful photographer for Life magazine, witnessing the execution of a young African-American man in the gas chamber. Parks realizes that such a violent fate could easily have been his had he not chosen different “weapons” to fight the poverty, racism, and ignorance around him. The prologue delimits the pattern for the book: on the one hand, violence, brutality, and death; and on the other what Parks calls “learning,” an obsession with knowing and creating. Parks constantly attempts to rise above his environment through schooling, through voracious reading, through his music, through visual arts, and, finally, through his photography. Yet the tension created in the book is intense, as Parks was frequently tempted to use a violent response to his environment.

A Choice of Weapons has many of the characteristics of a novel of initiation, and in some ways is a continuation of The Learning Tree. Parks is talented, isolated, and an outsider. He is also extremely rebellious, raging against the injustice around him. Many young adults find it easy to identify with Parks, as he has many of the qualities of their popular fictional heroes.

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