Gordon Parks and a Place to Call Home

Photo from Aaliyah Kelly’s response to the exhibit “Gordon Parks: Homeward to the Prairie I Come”

Coinciding with the Beach Museum’s current exhibit “Homeward to the Prairie I Come”—which features the work of photographer, filmmaker, and writer Gordon Parks—the students in ENGL 420 “African American Film” discussed two of Parks’s movies: the autobiographical coming-of-age film The Learning Tree and the Blaxploitation flick Shaft. Both movies are shot on location (one in Kansas, the other in New York City) and both have a specificity of geography; Shaft is as much of a New York story as The Learning Tree is a Kansas story. When we viewed the photographs in the exhibit, as well as some behind-the-scenes material courtesy a private tour with curator Aileen Wang, we were struck by how often Parks returned to Kansas for inspiration, despite his ambivalence about the place.

In this assignment, students were asked to respond creatively to Gordon Parks’s work by reflecting on their own relationships with the place they call home. There were few limitations on the genre, and students submitted a story, an essay, a music video, a painting, a poem, and two photo-essays. Here are some selections from their work.

— Katy Karlin, Associate Professor


Inspired by the work Gordon Parks did in his capturing his own hometown, these images capture the point-of-view of my younger self growing up in the Manhattan area. Depicting the scenes I considered my “homes” these photos show a range of images, from my old school playground, to the sidewalks that lead to the Boys and Girls club, to the library, and to the “frog-lands” beyond the Anneberg Park bridge — which any town kid knows is the best place for frog hunting. These are only a few, select images of the photos from a larger series I am working on entitled “Welcome to Frogland,” which, in addition to showing the other “frog-lands” in the area, aims to capture the home Manhattan provides throughout the different stages of adolescence — much like the life cycle of a frog. – Meredith Comas

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When I was painting my piece, I was thinking about when we went through his exhibit, he didn’t want to be attached to Kansas, it was sort of a love-hate relationship he had with here. But after traveling he learned to love where he was from. And that’s what I feel, I’m from Kansas and I’ve always hated living here but there are also some perks to living here that I’ve always loved such as the scenery and just the nature in Kansas, which is why I painted the sky so pretty like and added trees into the skyline because there are rural areas but they’re so beautiful. I painted the crying face because that’s normally how I feel sad because I feel like I’ll never truly get out of here but once I do, I’ll explore the world like how Gordon Parks did when he moved away from here. – Maima Lewis

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After seeing Gordon Parks’ work and how he portrays his perspective and experiences through the lens of the camera, I had to dig into my own world and decide how I wanted to tackle this challenge of illustrating my home state through my eyes. My first thought was how beautiful Kansas can be from its golden lit sunsets, open and puffy clouded sky, to the gray overcast at Konza Prairie. Breathtaking all the way down to the ground with one of my favorite flowers the Woolly Verbana, in which the flowers bloom coming up the stalk as those that are underneath the new flower, fall off. I wanted to end the series with something about myself and my background. Now beginning to take flight as I move out on my own and start a new chapter in life! – Aaliyah Kelly

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After seeing The Learning Tree I decided I wanted to illustrate my feelings of Missouri in the same way. I think telling a bigger story in a series of smaller stories is a great way to portray my message because it paints a bigger picture out of smaller pictures. – Belaye Turner

A selection from short story by Belaye Turner:

“This is the church where your whole family grew up,” she says. My eyes begin to light up as I imagine all of the generations that have been in here.

“My whole family?” I ask, almost unable to grasp the concept.

“Yep your whole family, starting with your great-great grandparents. They got married in this church,” she says with a smile.

“Wow. Why here?” I ask.

“Well, once slavery ended in Missouri, most of the families in this area began to move, or tried to buy land to plant crops. Our family struggled with the decision. But they finally decided to stay here. Your great-great grandfather got a job as a sharecropper and they lived a few blocks from this church. It was one of the few churches in the area that were for black people. So they started to come here. And then they got married and had children, and now, here we are,” she says, looking around.

“So you came here every Sunday?” I ask.

“Yep. I came here, I was baptised here, and we hold the majority of our funerals here.”

. . . I turn around and she hands me an old picture. It’s of two people standing by the old house. There’s a man and woman. I turn the picture over and it says both of their names. I turn to look back on the photo and think of all of the generations and history that came from these two people.


A music video by Cody Hatton: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZpVU9Qjd2iY

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