"We know, in short, where we went from there. Yet the question of how we got here is no less pressing, no less urgent to us fifty-two years past the first publication of this collection than it was on the morning Gene Young mailed her dispatch to Gordon Parks. To the extent that our current circumstances give us cause to ask it, Born Black remains vital as a map of the route we took from there to the complicated, ambivalent, and difficult place where we find ourselves today."
–Jelani Cobb, "Gordon Parks's Black America," in Gordon Parks: Born Black, 2024

Originally published in 1971, Gordon Parks’s Born Black was the first book to unite his writing and his photography. It was also the first to provide a focused survey of Parks’s documentation of a crucial time for the civil rights and Black Power movements. More than fifty years later, a reimagined, expanded edition of Born Black offers deeper insight into the series collected in it. The original publication featured nine articles commissioned by Life magazine from 1963 to 1970—some of the material never published before—supplemented with later commentary by Parks and presented as a personal account of the important moments in the history of the civil rights and Black Power movements. This new edition of Born Black includes the original text and images, as well as additional images from each of the nine series, facsimiles from the original publication, manuscripts and related correspondence, and reproductions of Life magazine spreads. Parks’s images and words are accompanied by essays from celebrated scholars Jelani Cobb and Nicole R. Fleetwood, the inaugural Gordon Parks Foundation Genevieve Young Fellow in Writing. The book is edited by Peter W. Kunhardt, Jr. and Michal Raz-Russo.

The Following text is excerpted from Gordon Parks: Born Black (Expanded Edition), 2024. Published by The Gordon Parks Foundation and Steidl.

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In September 1967, as Gordon Parks was preparing a story for Life magazine about an impoverished Harlem family, he received a letter from Genevieve Young, his literary editor, offering advice about writing the text that would accompany his photographs: “The camera can show, with unparalleled vividness, the facts, the present, the tangible,” she told him. “But only words can convey the web of thought and emotion, the influence of the past and the fears and hopes for the future, all the things that go into the way an individual faces his world.” His task, she argued, was “to show, not tell; to dramatize, not lecture,” what life was like for Black Americans, through his images and words. Young only amplified what Parks had keenly understood—the power of combining his photographs with his words on the printed page. Words, like the camera, had by then become another of Parks’s “choice of weapons,” and nowhere is that made clearer than in his 1971 book, Born Black, the first to feature a selection of his groundbreaking writing and photographs for Life.

More than fifty years after its original publication, the significance of Born Black has risen as a record of a pivotal moment not only in the history of the struggle for Black freedom, but also in Parks’s life and career. While his best-known work was as a photographer and filmmaker, Parks was an accomplished writer of memoirs, poetry, and novels, publishing twenty books in his lifetime; writing was in fact his most personal and intimate form of expression throughout his life. For at least a decade, through his photographic archive, the Gordon Parks Foundation’s mission has been to expand and deepen the understanding of Parks as an artist who partook in the “common search for a better life, a better world.” Most of the Foundation’s projects have been in-depth studies of his complex, groundbreaking assignments for Life magazine. Born Black, created near the end of his tenure at Life, collected nine of his writing assignments for the magazine—some published, others not—focusing on the people and events that catalyzed the civil rights and Black Power movements. The 1971 book had the format and scale of a literary publication and notably included only twenty-four out of hundreds of photographs from the corresponding photo essays. The result, which was likely constrained by the literary publisher’s requirements for size and copyright, nonetheless highlights the importance of writing to Parks’s process. The expanded edition of Born Black, which presents the book’s texts alongside additional photographs and material that led to its formation, the depth and complexity of his relationship to his subjects is revealed. It also provides further insight into a book that Young described as capturing “Gordon Parks’s black America.”

By the time Born Black was released, Parks had already established himself as a writer as much at ease with his typewriter as he was with his camera. In 1963 he published The Learning Tree, a semiautobiographical novel that was adapted into a Hollywood feature film released six years later, which Parks wrote, directed, and scored. That seminal book was followed by the autobiography A Choice of Weapons (1966) and then by A Poet and His Camera (1968), a collection of poetry with color photographs. As a staff photographer for Life, Parks was periodically asked to contribute articles, many of which accompanied his photo essays—an unusual role for any photographer. The articles he was commissioned to do for Life, whether ultimately published or not, were for him more than reportage—they were deeply personal observations of people, places, and events that shaped his own view of Black life in America. As he explained in his foreword to Born Black, “My own background has enabled me, I hope, to better share the experiences of some other black people. I do not presume to speak for them. I have just offered a glimpse, however, fleeting, of their world through black eyes.”

Parks’s unique personal approach was the driving force behind Born Black when it was first proposed in 1969. The book materialized largely thanks to the efforts of Genevieve Young, who pitched it to publisher J. B. Lippincott the following year when she was appointed executive editor there. Parks and Young met during her formative years as an editor at Harper & Row, when she was assigned to work on The Learning Tree. Young—who would go on to become a publishing powerhouse—became his longtime editor, confidante, and literary executor. The two married in 1973 and later divorced. Born Black was a meeting of minds and an expression of their ongoing collaboration. In 1966, Parks had signed a two-book contract with Harper & Row for an autobiography and a novel, neither of which he ever completed. When Young transferred to Lippincott, she proposed a collection of his Life pieces as a way of wiping the slate clean and foregrounding a tightly framed selection of work that had helped establish his reputation during the climactic years of the civil rights and Black Power movements. Parks dedicated Born Black to Young, as his editor.

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Clockwise from top left: Gordon Parks, Jr., Untitled (Gordon Parks at the Works of Gordon Parks exhibition, Time-Life Gallery, New York), 1966; Selections from Gordon Parks, Born Black, 1971 (J. B. Lippincott Company Edition) 

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Section 3

Clockwise from top left: Photographer unknown, Untitled (Gordon Parks and Genevieve Young), 1990s; Gordon Parks, Jr., Untitled (Gordon Parks preparing for the Works of Gordon Parks exhibition at the Time-Life Gallery, New York), 1966; J. B. Lippincott Company, promotional flyer for Born Black, April 27, 1971

Initially to be titled Gordon Parks’ Black Americans, the book since its inception concentrated on notable Black activist figures such as Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael, and Martin Luther King, Jr. Over the course of 1969–1971 its contents shifted slightly yet significantly. An original list of Life stories under consideration for the book, sent by Young to agent Robert Lantz in October 1969, reveals that it was supposed to include two pieces that were ultimately cut—“Red Jackson, a Gang Leader” (1948), Parks’s first assignment for Life, and “How It Feels to Be Black” (1963), which featured staged images that re-created scenes from The Learning Tree. In their place, Parks and Young chose two 1970 stories about the Black Panthers and Eldridge Cleaver, shifting the book’s theme to the Black Power movement, encompassing 1963–1970.

Even with this narrow scope, the final selection of essays in Born Black is a study of the complexities and contradictions of Black life in America. As Jelani Cobb notes in his essay in the expanded edition of Born Black, “Parks had been charged with making legible the lives of a group that represented more than a tenth of the nation but existed on both the geographic and the psychological periphery.” Nicole R. Fleetwood elaborates further in her essay, observing that in its focus on male Black leaders the book serves as “a meditation on the paradoxes of Black strength and vulnerability, visibility and invisibility, veneration and vilification.” Indeed, the paradoxes experienced by people he reported on extended to Parks himself, revealing the conflicts he faced when approaching these assignments through the lens of Life. As he later reflected, “If I could bring a special significance to a story because I was black, it was given to me. When I did cover a situation involving black people, I went in as a Life reporter—not as Life’s ‘black’ reporter. There was this distinction to be made, otherwise I would have been baiting my own trap. . . . I knew, as well as Life’s editors, that my rope would be a tight one to walk.”

The book’s narrative arc reflects the complexities of representation Parks faced when covering these subjects for Life. It begins with a first-person prologue, a call to action that likewise opened his 1968 Life photo essay about the Fontenelle family in Harlem. The first chapter is a wrenching account of an execution at San Quentin State Prison—a story that came out of his reporting on crime for Life in 1957 but was instead published as the prologue to A Choice of Weapons. He adapted it for Born Black by inserting a personal story of his own fearful encounter with authority as a teen. The chapters that follow focus on individuals: rare glimpses of the inner workings of the Black Muslims and Black Panthers (the latter piece never published but only quoted in Life). Also included are Parks’s commentaries on the deaths of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr., both pieces published in Life alongside images taken by other photographers, and his intimate descriptions of Stokely Carmichael, Muhammad Ali, Eldridge Cleaver, and the Fontenelle family—stories that through images and words transformed the public’s perception of Black life and activism and came to define Parks’s legendary career as photographer and activist.

When it was published in 1971, Born Black functioned primarily as a survey of Parks’s first-person perspective on the subjects he was commissioned to cover. It was well received by critics, many of whom by then knew his work as a photographer. Today the book emerges as an important and resonant document of this important moment in history, and is better appreciated through a fuller understanding of the broader context of these stories and their complex trajectory from Parks’s lens to Life. The expanded, in-depth volume of Born Black highlights the lasting legacy of Parks’s projects and their relevance to our understanding of those critical years in American history. It underscores his personal involvement and his identification with and relationship to each subject—a reflection of his own past as well as a vision for the future. Over the years, Parks adapted many of these texts for his published memoirs, as if underlining how formative these assignments were for him personally. Through Born Black, his own complicated, at times conflicted, views about Black American life and Black activism emerge. As he wrote in the 1971 foreword, “I came to each story with a strong sense of involvement, finding it difficult to screen out my own memories of a scarred past. But I tried for truth, the kind that comes through looking and listening, through the careful sifting of day-to-day emotions that white America whips up in black people.”

Excerpt from Gordon Parks: Born Black (Expanded Edition), 2024. The Gordon Parks Foundation and Steidl.