John Edgar Tidwell presents the “Gordon Parks’ Learning Tree Experience”
“Gordon Parks’ Learning Tree Experience”
To be presented by:
John Edgar Tidwell, PhD
Professor of English, KU
Thursday, February 19, 2009, 4PM
Crimson & Gold Ballroom, Overman Student Center, PSU
The talk will discuss Gordon Parks’ autobiographical novel The Learning Tree (1963) and the film, shot on location in Fort Scott in 1968, which Parks made based on this novel. This talk is in honor of African American History month and will be jointly sponsored by the PSU Tilford Group, The Friends of the Leonard H. Axe Library, and the Kansas Humanities Council. All members of the public as well as the PSU Community are invited and refreshments will be served.
Gordon Parks is an awe inspiring figure. He grew up in segregated Fort Scott, Kansas, the youngest of 15 children, lost his wonderful mother at age 15 and was sent by his father to live with his married sister in St. Paul, MN. In a matter of weeks his brother-in-law threw him out and he found himself homeless, out of school and working numerous odd jobs to support himself. Not exactly a recipe for success. But Gordon always remembered his mother’s advice to never use his color as an excuse for f
ailure. And from this time until his death in New York at age 93, he never stopped working, finding success and distinction in several different careers.
He has often been called a Renaissance man, who started out by working a variety of odd jobs, including a porter, piano player, singer, waiter, semi-pro basketball player and laborer for the Civilian Conservation Corps. His professional career as a photographer started out when he read magazines discarded on the trains he worked on as a porter.
His new career took off after he bought his first camera in a Seattle pawn shop. Sta
rting out as a portrait artist, he branched into fashion photography, including celebrity and high
society work as well as controversial photo essays of slum life in Chicago, New York, and other major cities. He worked for high end fashion magazines (Vogue), popular pictorial magazines (Life), for the United States Government (the Farm Security Administration and the Office of War Information), and for Standard Oil of New Jersey. He also did free lance work.
But he wasn’t content to be just a photographer. He became a composer (he didn’t have time to learn conventional music notation, so he invented one of his own.), editor (He helped found Essence magazine and was its editorial director from 1970 to 1973.), writer, choreographer (a ballet based on the life of Martin Luther King, for which he also composed the music)
, filmmaker (The Learning Tree, Shaft), etc. And when he undertook a new profession, such as writing, he attacked it in his same Renaissance man style, becoming not only a novelist, but a poet, memoirist, journalist, screenwriter and technical writer (two practical manuals on photography)
He attacked the profession of filmmaking with the same gusto and enthusiasm. In 1963, Gordon had written a very sensitive novel about his Kansas boyhood, The Learning Tree. In 1968, he shot the film on location in his home tow
n of Fort Scott, KS. He then contributed to the very popular “blaxploitation” genre with the films Shaft, Shaft’s Big Score and Supercops in the early seventies. He then made the biopic Leadbelly, which was a commercial failure due to distribution problems. After this, he retired from Hollywood filmmaking and made fil
ms for television (The Ordeal of Solomon Northrup, 1984) as well as pursuing his usual activities writing fiction, poetry and exhibiting his stunning photographs.