Gordon Parks was an acclaimed artist who confronted poverty and racism with such creative grace that he became an internationally admired cultural icon long before his death in 2006 at age ninety-three. An accomplished photographer, writer, composer, musician, and film producer and director, Parks was born in Fort Scott, Kansas, in 1912, and later moved to Saint Paul, where he spent his formative years. His memoir, A Choice of Weapons, which describes his experiences from 1928 through 1944, was first published in 1966 and reissued in 1986 and 2010 by the Minnesota Historical Society Press.
In the excerpt that follows, Parks brings an outsider’s perspective to the experience of being African American in Minnesota. He is seventeen years old and living in Saint Paul’s Rondo neighborhood.
Neither were these new friends as militant as we back there had been [Fort Scott, KS]. The lack of racial conflict here made the difference. Minnesota Negroes were given more, so they had less to fight for. Negro and white boys fought now and then in the Twin Cities, but the fights never amounted to much. Some Negro boys dated white girls without any major outcry. . . . One night a white man approached a group of us at the corner of Dale and Rondo, our favorite hangout. He quietly asked us where he might find a nice-looking colored girl.
We all looked at each other solemnly for a few seconds, then Leroy Lazenberry, a tall, bespectacled boy, shook his head regretfully. “Well, sir,” he said with disappointment in his voice, “we’re terribly sorry, but we just don’t know where to find you any colored girls”—a long regretful pause and more shaking of the head.
“But I tell you,” he went on, his face brightening up (the man suddenly more hopeful), “we know where we can get you several nice-looking white girls—without any trouble.” The man flushed and took off hurriedly without another word. And we, our insides nearly bursting, could hardly wait until he was gone before breaking into laughter.
We weren’t subtle with restaurants that used to burn our hamburgers, over-salt them and serve our drinks in unwashed glasses. The White Castle chain was probably the most notorious for this; but after ten of us dumped our sandwiches on the floor one night and doused them with water, the practice stopped, at least at that restaurant.
There were exceptions, but Minnesota Negroes seemed apathetic about the lynching, burning and murdering of black people in the South. The tragedy taking place down there might just as well have been on another planet. And they didn’t press vigorously for rights in their own communities.
One Negro newspaper existed, the Minneapolis Spokesman–St. Paul Recorder. It had a small voice and a small Negro circulation. Its publisher, Cecil Newman, was as militant as the climate would allow—but the climate wasn’t allowing much. My young friends didn’t talk about these conditions very often. They seemed at times content with their lot. Or perhaps they were just awaiting the right voice or situation to jolt them into action. Even I, who only a few months before had faced starvation, had all but forgotten the frightful winter. Contentment was the word now, in the pleasant summer of 1929.
June burned into July. And July burned into August. By September I had saved a little money, received a two-dollar raise and fallen deeper in love; and on the ninth day of that same month I enrolled at Central High School. Working evenings and weekends at the club . . .
On the fifteenth of October, I asked Sally if she would marry me. She only blushed, laughed and explained, “Why . . . I must finish high school before thinking about such things.” I felt a little crushed; but she hadn’t refused outright. Furthermore, common sense warned me to finish high school too, before taking on a wife. I opened a savings account, anticipating the day, a year later, when we both would graduate.
—Gordon Parks, A Choice of Weapons, (HarperCollins, 1966) 52–54
Gordon Parks (1912–2006) was a photographer, filmmaker, writer, and poet who blazed an incredible path of artistic brilliance. He was born in Kansas and moved to Saint Paul at fifteen years old. After working as a porter, against all odds he made a name for himself as a fashion photographer in Saint Paul and later became a photographer and reporter for Life magazine, famous for his gritty photo essays about the grinding effects of poverty in the U.S. and abroad. He wrote several books, poetry, and screenplays. He wrote and directed The Learning Tree (1969) and Shaft (1971). His work won numerous awards.
Anura Si-Asar was born and raised in the historic Rondo community of Saint Paul. He is the copublisher of Papyrus Publishing Inc. with his wife, Rekhet. He coordinates the Imhotep Science Initiatives, an African youth development program at the Cultural Wellness Center. Anura is also a firefighter for the City of Minneapolis.