Gordon Parks is a hero to many people, not just because of his amazing artistry with photography, film, music and writing, but also for the example he set by tapping into his genius and owning his place in the world. He fought racism throughout his long life and advocated freedom through the breaking down of barriers and creating new horizons. He was the first African American to work at Life Magazine, and the first to write, direct and score a Hollywood film. No wonder he was the focus of celebrations for Black History Month this week, coinciding with what would have been his 100th birthday.
Sean and I have Park’s portrait of Malcolm X, and were very happy to be invited to the Black History event at Macy’s. It seemed an unusual venue for what we thought would be an exhibition – but then the last collection of his work we saw exhibited was at Hermes, so why not? As it turned out, viewing photography was not the purpose of the evening. On the 9th floor of the super store a large area was dedicated to hosting an evening with a Hollywood panel – Kenny Leon ( director of ‘Raisin in the Sun’ & ‘Steel Magnolias’ on Broadway ), Omari Hardwick, Malik Yoba ( New York Undercover ) and Malinda Williams ( Soul Food ). As we do not have television, much of the resume of the panel was lost on us. But the sentiments were not. At times, in an audience largely composed of African Americans, I felt we were part of a revival group. Honest and emotional comments by the panel were met with waves of affirmation by the audience. The atmosphere was fantastic. Murray talked about chasing the purpose not the paper, about how you can’t be an artist without being an activist, and Malik said you can’t change the game unless you’re in it. They talked about the need to be consistent ( Melinda said 80% of her career was auditions ) and to be relentless. Many young people in the audience were actors and their questions were about rejection. It could have been heavy and ministerial, but mostly it was funny. At one point Malik sprang through the audience ( channeling Oprah ) to hand someone Kenny’s business card – then when another aspiring actor moaned, Malik put him on the spot. ‘You have everyone’s attention and 21 seconds to audition. Go for it!’ Amazingly, he did.
When the panel wrapped, the music started and that was another surprise. Chelsea Green and her jazz violin lead a soul group that had everyone tapping. There were drinks and canapes, and the party was just getting started. Sean and I headed home. We took the express lift to the ground, feeling inspired by an unexpected evening in a department store, and some lingering words of wisdom… ‘You didn’t have to compete with anyone to be born. When your time comes, be ready’!