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.