I just heard the news that Gordon Parks has died. My mom saw him several times this past week, and she warned me yesterday that he was near the end of his life. Still, the news came as a shock. I just wanted to write in and say a few words about a man whose life was truly remarkable and deserves to be celebrated and honored for years to come.
If you don't know who Gordon Parks is, or even if you think you know about him, chances are you only know one part of his story. Gordon Parks lived more lives and had more talents than anyone else I've ever met. He was a photographer, a writer, a poet, a film director, not to mention a father, a husband, and a friend.
Gordon gave so much to this world, even though this world initially didn't give him much of anything. He was born in Kansas to a family that was dirt poor. He was the first African-American photographer for Life Magazine, and later, the first African-American to direct a film for a major Hollywood studio.
My mom became friends with Gordon Parks in the mid 1950s. He was a photographer for Life back then and had come to take her picture. I don't think two people could have come from more different backgrounds, but my mom and Gordon became very close friends -- a friendship they maintained and protected throughout the rest of their lives.
Most kids don't pay much attention to their parents' friends, but when Gordon Parks came to stay at our house on weekends during the summer, my brother and I made sure we would be around. I knew Gordon was cool, long before I even knew what the word cool meant. Memory plays tricks over time, and I can't recall if Gordon drove a Jaguar or a Porsche, but I remember it was the most beautiful sports car I'd ever seen. He told me he'd give it to me when he died. Later, he admitted he said that to just about everyone who inquired about the car.
As a kid, I didn't really know much about Gordon's career. I knew he'd written books and took photographs. It was only as a teenager that I actually saw his remarkable work and came to appreciate the full scope of his talent.
We live in an age of quick celebrity, where people become famous for not really doing much of anything. Gordon Parks earned everything he ever got. He made countless contributions to art and politics, and through his work and his life was an important agent of social change. I feel very lucky to have known him even a little bit.
It's strange. I didn't know Gordon was ill, and just last week dropped off at my mom's house a belated birthday present for her. It's a photo of Gordon and her taken a few years ago in her apartment in New York. It was taken for a series on race The New York Times was doing.
In the photo, my mom and Gordon are sitting in her living room, holding each other. There is something so tender about it. These two old friends, both of whom knew the pain of losing a child, both of whom had seen so many good times and bad. There they were after all these years. Friends. Survivors. Together. Holding onto one another.
Gordon Parks has died. He is gone. Thankfully, his work, his art, his example -- those are things all of us still have to hold onto.