Gordon Parks' advice to aspiring black artists in the 1980s

This speech originally aired on MPR's MIDDAY program, June 1980.

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Gordon Parks was born in Fort Scott, Kan., in 1912, but after his mother died, he moved in with relatives in the Twin Cities. After an argument with his uncle, he was kicked out of the house, and Parks found himself homeless at the age of 16.

"I got thrown out in 32 degrees below zero weather, with two dollars and a half," Parks said during a speech at the "Our Creative Community" conference at the Spring Hill Center in Wayzata in June, 1980.

To stay warm before and after school, Parks said he used to hang out at a pool hall for as long as he could, and then ride the street car between Minneapolis and St. Paul until his money ran out.

When Parks gave the speech in Wayzata, he was 77 years old and had quite the resume. He was a world-renowned photographer for many publications, including Life magazine. He was the first African-American to produce and direct major motion pictures. He also composed music and wrote books.

Gordon Parks in St. Paul in 1969
Gordon Parks signed copies of "Gordon Parks: A Poet and His Camera" at the Hilton Hotel in St. Paul in 1969.
Photo by Eugene Debs Becker, courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society

Parks made it his mission to help black writers find success as well.

"My main thrust now is that this is a spectrum," he said. "You walk in and say you're a black writer, they're going to say, 'OK, two years from now we're going to do some black stories, so we'll look you up.'"

In a racist nation like the U.S., Parks said, you need to learn how to fight your way out of those corners, and that means creating things that are universal.

Parks used his book, "Shannon," as an example. In "Shannon," he looked at the oppression of the Irish, but ended the story with a black man as the focus.

Parks died in 2006 at the age of 93.

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