A man for all seasons

You’re a black boy. The youngest of 15 children. You’re smack dab in the middle of America. Fort Scott, Kan., is where. The 1920s is when. Bigotry and racism are as rampant in the land as locusts in Midian. Every white man, woman and child in America is, by law, superior to you.

Your mother dies when you’re 15 and your dirt farmer daddy sends you to live with an older sister. It’s not rosy, but it is what it is, until her husband puts you "outdoors" in the middle of a below-zero Minnesota night. Despair, the hawk and Jim Crow are on you like … well, like despair, the hawk and Jim Crow.

For the next few years, you search for a sense of worth, a direction and a means of expression. You keep your eyes and mind open the whole time. You survive as a menial laborer and piano player in a whorehouse. At that point, you seem to have as much chance at any minutes of fame as a certified "winner" of a sweepstakes actually coming away with cash in hand.

But rather than being led by bitterness, you arm yourself with an arsenal of mother-wit and common sense inherited from your parents, and "drenched in the showers of their love," you remain open to the help a number of good people, black and white, offer you. You keep stepping, learning to hit a straight lick with a crooked stick, to turn straw into gold.

With a kind of spiritual and emotional double-consciousness you witness the magnificence of nature and humanity, but remain alertly aware of "the fear, hatred and violence/ We blacks had suffered upon this beautiful land," as you put it in your poem "Kansas Land."

In a series of nearly miraculous, being-in-the-right-place-at-the-right-time episodes that read like a page-turner novel, you spend the next several decades roaming the world, celebrating the beauty of yourself and the world’s beings. In the process, you earn your reputation as one of the 20th century’s most creative individuals.

The short list of your accomplishments includes authorship of articles, novels, poems and memoirs. You compose ballets, musical scores and direct feature films. You are the photographer of some of the century’s finest, most moving and recognizable images. Your work not only represents, it matters. It changes perceptions and perceivers.

The production of your work often involved changing the original intent of a reportorial assignment, i.e. hitting that straight lick with that crooked stick. Your photos are not about ideas, not about "anti-communism" or "street gangs" or "segregation." They are, first and foremost, about what Shakespeare and Joyce and Ellison and Ellington are about. Giving the viewer a chance to witness the human face of the players in the human drama.

And you, despite the world’s intended exclusion of you from its plans for the best and brightest, manage to endure. A witness still, at the end of a Ulysseslike eight decades of riding the currents of history and rambling over the world’s waters and roads. You endure.

The evidence of the fruit of your Herculean labors is Half Past Autumn: The Art of Gordon Parks, a retrospective of photography, film, music and literature. The meticulously hung, salon-style exhibition is currently in the galleries of the Detroit Institute of Arts.

The images, produced over a period of more than half a century, range from vast visions of mid-American prairie land to the intimacy of a boy with a June bug on a string. Each endeavoring to show the world to itself – its wonders, warts and commonalties. From the segregation of the South, to the mud-rot poverty of the mountains of Rio de Janeiro, to the excesses of European luxury.

There are cold water flats, church worshipers and death mourners. And there are children. Amish adolescents in their broad-brimmed hats and bonnets, waiting in the wagon of a buckboard. Portuguese boys with eyes like black aggies, and a wistful urchin in a draped Paris window. Black, barefooted, tenement-bound children huddled around a long-haired white doll with one shoe, as if it contained the warmth of life.

A preteen daughter in her frilly, Sunday white dress waits, hand on her hip, before a store window plastered with the postered promise of ice cream, hot dogs and other of life’s goodies. The girl’s mother, similarly dressed, drinks from a "Colored Only" fountain.

High glamour to low, grimy grit. Farmers, soldiers, sweating grease plant workers. Movie stars. Bullfights, chichi weddings, sun-washed nudes, streets along the Seine. A sleeping baby in the arms of a beggar woman with bottomless eyes. A roulette bettor in a strapless gown with the concentration of a hawk. The bird-filled Paris sky.

The most recent works, in this compilation curated at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., are abstractions. Their subject is the elegiac beauty of composition, color and natural forms. These images lack an emotionally involving narrative or the human element, but demand their own deservedly serious aesthetic consideration.

The talents displayed in these works are as varied as the colors in Joseph’s coat, as revolutionary as any gun-toting, slogan-spouting radical. They tell the story of an African-American renaissance – man’s rise above the biased expectations of his beginnings. It is a journey that not only has effected positive social change, but will be enlightening to all who witness it.

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