Gordon Parks believed that images and words could be used as weapons to fight racism, poverty, and all forms of discrimination. This month, in solidarity with social and racial justice protests happening nationally and internationally our On This Day articles will feature Gordon Parks’s own words.
In 1963, Gordon Parks published his first semi-autobiographical novel, The Learning Tree, which he eventually adapted to a film, released in 1969. In August of 1963, Life magazine celebrated the publication of the novel with the story “How It Feels to be Black,” featuring 8 pages of photographs by Parks that “evoke the book’s mood.” That story was accompanied by an essay written by Parks, “The Long Search for Pride,” that chronicled the racism and violence he had experienced since childhood. The following is an excerpt from that essay. To read the full text, click here.
A few days ago I walked through the worst of New York’s Harlem and was jolted into a new appreciation of what 350 years of oppression have done to my people. The black ghetto has always swarmed with pain, poverty, despair and resentment, but now there was an exultant anger—clearly capable of erupting into open violence. The restless inhabitants, no longer afraid, no longer passively awaiting divine deliverance, crowded the street corners, listening to impassioned voices screaming invective.
In the midst of all this, disgruntled white policemen, sometimes 50 to a single square block—standing in doorways, hovering on rooftops or poised with their backs against the tired tenement buildings—listened to the diatribes.
One fiery little woman atop a soapbox was screaming: "We’re on the move! We’re crossing the line—even if some of us get killed! We’ll keep comin’ till you’re ground to red dust under our black feet!”
She screamed on relentlessly: "To hell with your love for us! To hell with your pity for us! To hell with your anger at us! We don’t want nothing from you but a chance to live better than the rats that share our homes! If you can’t do anything about it, then go find some way to make the rats share the rent with us! . . .”
The crowd rallied to her words, raising their hands and voices in frequent approval.
"Tell ’em like it is, sister!”
"Give ’em hell, baby!”
"Preach on! Preach on!”
I lay in bed that night, moved by the black temper of our time, by the courage of that old woman on the soapbox. It was almost daylight before I finally slept, because I knew—and the knowing made my heart pound—that history had caught up with us.
. . . .
How often have I heard a white man suggest, "I know the Negro.” Nobody knows the Negro, not even the Negro. Because all our lives we have cloaked our feelings, bided our time, waited for the year, the month, the day and the hour when we could do, at last, what we are doing just now—looking our white oppressors squarely in the eye and telling them exactly what we think, what we want and what we intend to get. And all this without fear.
Our young people tell us boldly: We will not go on suffering while the white man insists on slow surrender through law and time. If some speak to them of new laws and legislation, they answer: It’s one thing to make a law and another thing to enforce it. If some speak to them of well-intentioned whites, they answer: If they are sincere, they will raise their voices above those of the racists. And if some tell them times are changing, they answer: We are changing the times. So, my generation yields to them—and in doing so finds pride.