If Gordon Parks’ list of achievements weren’t so well-documented, it would be tempting to mistake his autobiography for fiction: the picaresque journey of a black Everyman through 20th-century America. Best known as a photographer of undeniable genius, Parks has also been a novelist, scriptwriter, poet, and composer. He has directed several Hollywood films (The Learning Tree, Shaft) — the first African-American to do so — and composed both popular and symphonic music. His starkly evocative photographic essays for Life magazine during the ’50s and ’60s may have done as much to touch the nation’s conscience about segregation and poverty as the efforts of any other single person.
Parks’ boyhood in Fort Scott, Kan. — later portrayed in his 1963 novel, The Learning Tree — was shattered at age 15 by the death of his mother. He dropped out of high school and spent several years in poverty, riding the rails, playing piano in a Minneapolis roadhouse, touring with a semipro basketball team, and working as a janitor and a railroad porter before buying his first camera for $7.50 in a Chicago pawnshop.
Narrated in a sometimes stilted but always vigorous style, Voices in the Mirror tells what is on one level a classic American success story. For all the difficulty of his early years, ”there was always some invisible noble-hearted something that kept beckoning me on. I can’t describe it but it was relentless.” What elevates Voices in the Mirror well above this level is the author’s willingness to admit some of the personal and psychological costs of his trailblazing success. Despite the recognition the years have brought, Parks still has nightmares that lead him to ”wonder if the violence I shunned is, at last, demanding pay. I did suppress layer upon layer of rage during my youth and adulthood — most of which was provoked by whites who held me inferior because I was black.”
Having struggled throughout his career to make the lives of the poor and disenfranchised as visible as the Vogue mannequins he also photographed, Parks no doubt gave the correct answer to a young Black Panther who once challenged his integrity: ”I’ve got a 35-millimeter camera in my pocket. You’ve got a .45 automatic in yours. But I feel my weapon is probably more powerful than yours…So, don’t give me that horse—-, because I’m not buying.” A-