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Book Review: To Smile in Autumn by Gordon Parks

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According to Gordon Parks, the advice that made him the man he was to become came from his mother: "If a white boy can do it, so can you. Don't ever come home telling me you couldn't do this or that because you're black." And the man he was to become was certainly someone quite remarkable: noted professional photographer, novelist, poet, composer, motion picture director, screen writer and producer. He was a black man in a white man's world, and in his lifetime, he accomplished as much as any ten white men. Whether his mother actually believed that advice, he says, he really wasn't sure. But whether or not she believed, she managed to drum it into his head so often, she had him convinced.

To Smile in Autumn, Parks' 1979 memoir, now republished by the University of Minnesota Press, continues the story of this man's life of accomplishment begun in A Choice of Weapons, which takes him from his Kansas boyhood to a photographic fellowship with the Farm Security Administration in Washington, DC in the early forties. He has been working as a correspondent with an all black air force unit when he is stripped of his credentials. The powers that be, he suspects, were not particularly interested in any publicity for the unit. He is off to New York. It is 1943; opportunities for black photographers were not merely limited, they were more than likely not existent.

Yet with a little help from his friends, an undeniable talent with the camera, and the advice from his mother drummed into his head, he became the first black photographer to work for Standard Oil, and even more importantly, the first to work for perhaps the most important photo-journalist magazine of the day, Life. It is one thing to get an opportunity; it is another thing to make something of that opportunity. Gordon Parks made sure that he made the most of his chances.

His memoir is both a monument to his achievements and a record of some of the most significant events of the second half of the twentieth century and the people who were central to them. He documents the non-violent protests of Dr. Martin Luther King and the more radical protests of the SNCC and the Black Panthers. He profiles leaders like Malcolm X, Eldridge Cleaver, and Elijah Muhammad, athletes like Sugar Ray Leonard and Muhammad Ali, writers like Richard Wright and Langston Hughes, and a host of others. It isn't only the great and famous that concerns him. Some of his most effective work and some of the most revealing passages in the book deal are his stories about the less fortunate: Red Jackson, the Harlem gang leader in his piece on New York City gangs, the Fontenelle family who were profiled as surrogates for the suffering black poor.

Although he seems to focus on his work with the African American community, he never saw himself as pigeonholed by his race. He goes to Paris to do high fashion photography. He manages to get himself a scoop with pictures of scandal-rocked lovers, Ingrid Bergman and Roberto Rossellini, on the isle of Stromboli. He socializes with Gloria Vanderbilt, gets a cigar from Winston Churchill, and plays tennis with King Farouk. John Cassavetes arranges a meeting for him at Warner Brothers to see if he can get a film made of his novel. He visits Marlon Brando after the assassination of Dr. King. Still he never seems to lose sight of his obligations to the African American community; he never seems to forget where he came from, and that there are too many others who never got the chances he got.

As he says he told his audience in his Spingarn Medal acceptance speech: ". . . true brotherhood had to be earned through fire—as we black people knew fire—until it meant the same as love; it took more than a quick thumbgrip and a give-me-some-skin handslap, and more than a black face for it to qualify as love. It meant pushing someone up instead of pulling someone down. It meant reaching back for someone after escaping the hell in which we had been spawned."

While the book does go into his personal life — three marriages, children and grandchildren, the death of his son in a plane crash — he goes out of his way to stress the good things over the problems. He is too much of the romantic to demean the women he once loved with mean-spirited criticism. His preference is to include the love poems he wrote for them. Indeed, he has very little that is mean-spirited to say about any of the people he encountered, even those who may have been less than friendly with him.

A memoir is worth reading either because the life it describes is fascinating enough to keep the reader turning pages, or because it is written with such style and panache that the reader is enthralled by its art. To Smile in Autumn is the former. Although a poet and a novelist, this second of Parks' memoirs is not particularly artful in its composition. Transitions between events are not always smooth. Many of the incidents are not as detailed as the reader would like. Character profiles tend to plane down the rough spots. Still when all is said and done, when a man can tell you about buying Duke Ellington a steak, describe an execution in San Quentin, or explain his confrontation with a bunch of Texas racists who see him kissing a colleague goodbye, that is a man well worth any reader's time.

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