Form and Content

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Voices in the Mirror is a full-length autobiography of an African American who achieved spectacular success in a number of fields that had previously been open almost exclusively to whites. Gordon Parks distinguished himself as a photographer, a painter, a journalist, a poet, a novelist, an author of nonfiction books, a musician, a composer, and a motion-picture director. He received more than fifty honorary doctorates and awards, including the National Medal of Art, which was presented to him by President Ronald Reagan in 1988.

Parks’s autobiography reads like an exciting novel, because he had such an eventful life, rising from the depths of poverty to the heights of fame and fortune. Because Parks was a photographer and a painter, he could not help writing in a visual, metaphorical style, with many vivid descriptions of people, places, and things. His book consists largely of a string of anecdotes intended to highlight different periods of his life.

The twenty-six chapters carry the reader in steady chronological order from Parks’s earliest childhood up until the death of his son Gordon Parks, Jr., in 1979. In an epilogue written when he was in his late seventies, Parks states that he still has a passion for living and still retains big dreams about future accomplishments.

The book that Voices in the Mirror most closely resembles is The Autobiography of Malcolm X (1965). Parks, like his eloquent and charismatic friend Malcolm X, grew up in poverty and lived in slums as a youth. He could easily have become a dangerous criminal, like the young Malcolm X, were it not for the fact that Parks possessed unusual artistic talent. After flirting with a criminal career, which he describes in interesting anecdotes, he became interested in photography.

The camera proved to be his salvation. It not only became a means to earn a good living and to achieve social status but also served as a “weapon” against the forces of racial bigotry and economic discrimination. Parks paints vivid word-pictures of conditions in the black ghettos during the 1930’s and 1940’s, when African Americans were restricted to the most menial occupations and could not even aspire to be taxi drivers or elevator operators, much less policemen, firemen, or construction workers.

In the epilogue to his autobiography, Parks writes that all his life he has been called “Mr. Dreamer,” “Mr. Striver,” and “Mr. Success.” These three nicknames characterize him effectively. Because of the strength instilled in his character by his devoted mother, Parks has exhibited an amazing degree of courage and self-confidence. He relates many anecdotes about his enterprising behavior. For example, without having any experience in fashion photography, he asked for a job taking pictures of the latest gowns for one of the most prominent designers in New York—and, largely because of his cockiness, he got the job.

Parks did all kinds of work with a camera during his long career. The biggest turning point came when he managed to get a job as the first African American ever to become a staff photographer for the...

(The entire section is 1296 words.)

Voices in the Mirror

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Gordon Parks is one of the happy few able to transform disadvantage into advantage, to turn his life around by sheer will, and to know when to seize the chances luck or happenstance put in his way. As an African American growing up in the nation’s heartland, he knew from an early age daily humiliation at the hands of racists. He rebelled, but where another man or woman would have resorted to the extremes of violence or docility, Gordon Parks transformed his anger and hatred into a creative energy that accepted no bounds, that refused to be bridled by what was or was not expected of the black man.

Eventually, through hard work and self-education, Parks won the right to speak for his people. His accomplishments in several fields distinguish him not as an African American and not by white standards, but as a true Renaissance man of extraordinary achievement. He calls himself photographer, writer, composer, screenwriter and director, poet and painter. Any man or woman would be proud to attain distinction in any one of these fields; for one man to be acknowledged as an outstanding practitioner of them all is surely unprecedented.

Voices in the Mirror recounts how Gordon Parks triumphed over the poverty of his childhood, how he never settled for just enough, and explains why this man of insatiable curiosity even today believes his work unfinished; other disciplines, ballet among them, beckon for his lively and sensitive imagination. In the beginning, in Kansas, he realized what it would take for him to achieve the only kind of success that would ultimately matter to him, the personal satisfaction that comes with obstacles, if not overcome, then displaced or circumvented. “I was on a search for pride,” he says, and this sentence could well serve as his motto.

From the time, in his segregated school, when he first heard the implicit warning from his class advisers “You were meant to be maids and porters,” he knew that he would have to fight racism both overt and subtle. Values to enjoin the battle he received from his parents, whom he lovingly remembers for their tenderness and their strength. The world taught him to scramble, to adjust, but never to accept racial barriers. By the age of fourteen he had not yet learned how to fight except blindly:

“in a black and white world anything whiter than I became my enemy.” With time and patience, he learned that he need not accommodate himself to a system of inequality he so despised:

The question frequently asked of me is why I have undertaken so many professions photography, painting, writing, musical composition and film. At first I wasn’t sure that I had the talent for any of them, but I did know I had an intense fear of failure, and that fear compelled me to fight off anything that might abet it—bigotry, hatred, discrimination, poverty or hunger. I suffered those evils, but without allowing them to rob me of the freedom to expand.

In Parks’s case, opportunities denied only pointed out alternatives.

Born in 1912, Parks has seen and participated in most of the major events of the twentieth century, at least those that define the modern American experience. Much of it he has recorded, if not in his photographs, then in his writings. He has in fact written three other autobiographical works, but especially with this one he gives narrative voice not only to black America’s consciousness but to the sometimes buried national conscience as well.

He is unequivocal in his hatred of racists. He describes eloquently their treachery, whether naked and unadorned, or cloaked in the deceitful mufti of social convention:

Thorn-wielding is their occupation and I can attest to their proficiency. Throughout my childhood they kept their eyes glued to my tenderest parts, stnking me, impaling me, leaving me bloodied and confused—without my knowing what had provoked their hostility. I came at last to think of them as beasts with cold hearts; of lost souls impassioned with hatred, slithering about in misery, their feelings severed of all humaneness and spreading over the universe like prickly cloth. Rancor seems to have been their master.…

Witness to racism as well as object of its pernicious effects, Parks regards it as an enemy to be encountered over and over, one that requires all his considerable resources and gifts to vanquish.

Perhaps Parks’s strength sprang from the Kansas prairieland as much as from what was, after all, a quintessential American family: hard-working, proud, and loving. Forced by the death of his mother, Sarah, when he was fifteen years old, to live with his sister in Minnesota, Parks found himself unable to abide by an intransigent brother-in-law’s rules. Not completely prepared to deal with adulthood, he relied on his wits and talents to survive, whether as a piano player in a bordello or as a janitor in a flophouse. All the time he listened to the voices, both his own and others’, that guided his future. To the negative ones, the ones that told him to get along, to accept poverty and discrimination, he turned deaf ears; to the others, the ones of hope, he responded as if to a call-to-arms, with his weapons a ready intelligence and a burning ambition.

Without a formal education, Gordon Parks endured the daily torments of service jobs, rootless wanderings, and encounters violent both to the body and mind. Ever candid, he describes his search for maturity in unflinchingly honest prose. Along the way he realized that “degradation was no respecter of color,” and later in his photo-essays for Life magazine, he revealed the fullness of his empathy for those who suffer through no fault of their own.

Although Parks’s first contributions to the arts were probably the songs he composed in brothels, he had initial success as a photographer. He became the first black photojournalist to work for Lije, and...

(The entire section is 2426 words.)


(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Berry, Skip. Gordon Parks. New York: Chelsea House, 1991. A brief biography of Parks, liberally illustrated with black-and-white photographs taken by Parks and others. Part of Chelsea House’s Black Americans of Achievement Series.

Parks, Gordon. Born Black. Philadelphia: J. J. Lippincott, 1971. A collection of essays mainly about Parks’s impressions of famous black leaders, including Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali, Martin Luther King, Jr., Stokely Carmichael, Eldridge Cleaver, and Huey Newton. Illustrated with some of Parks’s best photographs. Many of the essays and photographs originally appeared in Life.

Parks, Gordon. A Choice of Weapons. New York: Harper & Row, 1966. An earlier autobiographical work covering the author’s difficult life in Kansas, Minnesota, Chicago, New York, and Washington, D.C., up until the year 1944, when he went to Harlem. The title of the book refers to his choice of the camera as a “weapon” against racial and economic injustice.

Parks, Gordon. Flavio. New York: W. W. Norton, 1978. A true account of an impoverished Brazilian boy and his family whom Parks befriended during a photographic assignment for Life magazine. Illustrated with Parks’s emotionally stirring photographs of slum conditions in Rio de Janeiro.

Parks, Gordon. “Freedom’s Fearful Foe: Poverty.” Life 50 (June 16, 1961): 86-98. This article about Flavio da Silva and his family is an excellent example of Parks’s photojournalism. For many years Life, like its sister publication Time, was a powerful shaper of opinion, and the magazine was of vital importance to Parks’s career.

Parks, Gordon. In Love. Philadelphia: J. J. Lippincott, 1971. A collection of Parks’s poetry, illustrated with his own impressionistic color photographs. Displays another side of Parks’s multifaceted personality.

Parks, Gordon. To Smile in Autumn: A Memoir. New York: W. W. Norton, 1979. An earlier autobiographical work by Parks illustrated with his own distinctive black-and-white photographs. Covers his life and work during the period from 1944 through 1978.