[This month we celebrate the 150th anniversary of Arbor Day, so this week I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of tree-tastic stories. Leading up to a special weekend post on the holiday’s histories!]
On Parks’s autobiographical novel and its even more ground-breaking film version.
If Gordon Parks were just the hugely talented and influential photographer on whose career and works I focused in these two prior posts, that would be more than enough to merit much fuller collective memory of Parks and perhaps even a coveted spot in the under-construction American Hall of Inspiration. But in truth Parks was far more multi-talented than that, producing substantial and meaningful work in a number of artistic forms and genres, and as a result he left a cultural legacy that extends well beyond the worlds of photography and art. I’ll focus here on one of the most singular and impressive texts and moments in that legacy, his work telling the story of his own childhood as first a writer and then a filmmaker.
Parks told that story first in his one published work of fiction (he published numerous autographies and poetry collections as well as photography collections and textbooks), the autobiographical novel The Learning Tree (1963). I would locate Parks’s readable, compelling, and thought-provoking young adult novel alongside a work like William H. Armstrong’s Sounder (1969) in its ability to turn African American history into the kind of story that can engage and entertain as well as educate young readers. Parks’s book might not be quite as successful as Armstrong’s (which remains one of the greatest American young adult novels), but on the other hand it is both drawn from the author’s own life far more closely (which has its own interest and appeal) and represents, in its portrayal of 1910s and 20s Kansas, a period of African American and American history more consistently overlooked than the post-war sharecropping era of Armstrong’s book. Not bad at all for the man’s one published work of fiction!
A few years after publishing his novel, Parks took an even more radical and significant artistic step: directing a feature film version of The Learning Tree (1969), and in the process becoming the first African American director of a Hollywood studio film (it was made for Warner Bros./Seven Arts). That Parks also wrote the screenplay, produced the film, and, just for good measure, composed the musical score to boot makes this truly one of the most virtuoso artistic performances in American film or cultural history. But all that behind the scenes history shouldn’t overshadow a simpler but even more crucial way in which the film made history: representing an African American childhood as the central story of a Hollywood movie. That is, there had been plenty of other novels like The Learning Tree; I don’t think there had ever been a film remotely like it, just one more way that Gordon Parks profoundly influenced and altered American culture and history.
Next tree tale tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other tree texts you’d throw in?