In 1963, the same year that Gordon Parks photographed the March on Washington and the day-to-day activities of members of the Nation of Islam, he published his first novel—The Learning Tree. A semi-autobiographical, coming-of-age story, the novel follows the journey of Newt Winger, a Black teenage descendant of Exodusters growing up in rural Kansas in the 1920s who learns through hard-won lessons how to navigate the injustices of systemic racism. The book’s title is derived from a cautionary word of advice given to Parks by his mother when he departed his hometown of Fort Scott, Kansas. It is later recounted in the book by Sarah Winger, Newt’s mother, during a long evening walk:
“Some of the people are good and some of them are bad—just like the fruit on a tree…. No matter if you go or stay, think of it like that until the day you die—let it be your learning’ tree.”
Unlike the paths chosen by some of the book’s characters, Parks himself refused to let the injustices he encountered turn to retributions and instead chose the camera as his weapon. By 1963, the photographs he had taken for Life magazine contributed to the momentum of the civil rights movement and helped transform the ways in which American Black life was seen and understood. The publication of The Learning Tree would mark yet another pivotal moment in his career.
To make visible and symbolic the book’s narrative arc, the year of the book’s publication Parks created a series of color photographs. They are remarkable for the simultaneously idyllic and threatening tone and compositions—echoing the novel’s own conflicted and wrenching narrative. A selection of these images appeared in the August 16, 1963 issue of Life magazine, under the title “How It Feels To Be Black,” accompanied by passages from the book. Among the images is one of a boy laying peacefully in a field, his eyes closed as he pulls on string tied to a June bug crawling his way up his forehead. Parks lowered his camera to ground level, lying beside him in the field to capture the moment before the June bug’s escape to freedom, as described in its accompanying passage:
“The June bug lit on Newt’s nose. He watched with crossed yes as it crawled up the bridge of his nose to his forehead, dragging the dirty string over his lips. Suddenly the bug took off with a jerk, leaving its leg on the string. Clint propped himself up on his elbows, watching the insect’s crazy flight to freedom. Then he said, ‘If I was that goddamn bug I’d fly straight to Chicago without stoppin’!’”
Through the harsh realities and moral impasses encountered by the book’s characters, Parks had created a narrative that symbolically confronted Black life in America, brought to life via images and text, and six years later—as a film. In 1969, Parks further underscored The Learning Tree's deeply personal significance when he adapted the book to a film, serving as its writer, producer, and director. He was encouraged by acclaimed film director and friend, John Cassavettes, to undertake the project. Released in August 1969, The Learning Tree was the first film directed by a Black American for a major Hollywood film studio, Warner Brothers-Seven Arts. The film had a modest budget and wasn’t a commercial success, but it was a landmark achievement in American cinema history that has influenced a generation of filmmakers, among them Ava DuVernay, Spike Lee, and Julie Dash. Parks went on to create other feature and documentary films, best known among them was the 1971 groundbreaking blockbuster Shaft, which helped launch the Blaxploitation genre.
In November 1968, just a few months before The Learning Tree was released in cinemas, an article in Life magazine celebrated the “return of the prodigy” via the forthcoming film and the publication of A Poet and His Camera, a book of poetry paired with photographs. The article elaborates: “internationally famous as a photographer, author of a widely praised novel and autobiography, composer of a symphony and several concertos. Now Parks adds new roles to his already stunning repertoire.” Indeed, by that point Parks had proven his mastery of several creative weapons—photographs, films, words, and music. With all of these, he sought to advance what he described as "the common search for a better life and a better world,” as he beautifully described in his poem “Kansas Land,” included in the article:
I would miss this Kansas land that I was leaving.
Wide prairie filled of green and cornstalk; the flowering apple
Tall elms and oaks bordering streams that gurgle,
Rivers rolling quiet in long summers of sleepy days
For fishing, for swimming, for catching crawdad beneath the rock.
Cloud tufts billowing across the round blue sky.
Butterflies to chase through grass high as the chin.
Junebugs, swallowtails, red robin and bobolink,
Nights filled of soft laughter, fireflies and restless stars,
The winding sound of crickets rubbing dampness form their wings.
Silver September rain, orange-red-brown Octobers and white Decembers with hungry
Smells of hams and pork butts curing in the smokehouse.
Yes, all this I would miss—along with the fear, hatred and violence
We blacks had suffered upon this beautiful land.
LIFE Magazine, August 15, 1963 - pg. 72-73
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LIFE Magazine, November 15, 1968 - pg. 116-117
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LIFE Magazine, November 15, 1968 - pg. 123-124