In his lifetime, Parks produced an astonishing literary output, including four volumes of memoirs, several novels, a children’s book, a poetry collection, and several texts pairing his photographs with his own writings. His first novel, The Learning Tree (1964), draws on painful and fond memories of his 1920s childhood in the southeastern Kansas town of Fort Scott (represented by the fictional town of Cherokee Flats). Had this been merely the first prose effort by an established visual artist, The Learning Tree would be worth studying for its rich, panoramic depiction of a Midwestern town. The novel, however, stands on its own merits as a deeply felt coming-of-age story with a large cast of vivid characters during a time of significant social change.
Pivoting on a climactic courtroom scene that tests the race relations of Cherokee Flats, The Learning Tree echoes To Kill a Mockingbird, published three years earlier. The key difference, of course, is that the foregrounded voices in Parks’s novel are those of the town’s Black citizens, whereas the protagonists of Harper Lee’s novel are Maycomb’s white residents. Newt, the teenager at The Learning Tree’s center, must decide whether to reveal the truth about a scandalous murder even though it may spark a lynch mob, a complex decision that pits his parents’ moral upbringing against the political reality of the time. In the tradition of naturalist novelists including Ellison and Richard Wright, Parks interweaves the social pressures on one young man with his family’s efforts to overcome them. As an adolescent’s story firmly rooted in a specific region and era, The Learning Tree should continue to be read in middle schools and high schools. Currently, however, The Learning Tree is available only through a mass market 1987 paperback issued by Fawcett. It is our hope that, through the work of The Learning Tree: A Gordon Parks Digital Archive, we will stimulate greater interest in the novel, perhaps enough to support a reprint with supporting editorial material.
The novel The Learning Tree describes the contradictions of 1920s Kansas with precise detail, from the baffling actions of Newt’s white classmate, who courageously defends Newt in one scene and demeans him in another, to the paternalistic attitudes of employers. Educators could be encouraging and undermining. Newt’s cousin decides to pass as white not to enjoy wider privilege but because her friends and family risk violent recrimination whenever they walk down the street with her. In 1920s Kansas, Klan activity was on the rise, and although Kansas never suffered the violent annihilation of Black communities that neighboring Oklahoma and Missouri saw, lynch mobs organized in the nearby towns of Independence and Coffeyville during Parks’s Fort Scott childhood. Newt’s fear of precipitating a race riot was not unfounded.
The complex history of race relations in Kansas fostered not only a roster of famous African Americans (including Langston Hughes, Hattie McDaniel, and Charlie Parker), but also a tradition of resistance and action that resulted ultimately in the Brown v. Board school desegregation decision. The Learning Tree reports on a chapter taken from Parks’s own life, when Newt’s parents lead a protest against the school board for extending segregation one year into high school, a fight they win. The richness of these events sheds light not only on Kansas history but an important development in American history.
Southeastern Kansas of the 1920s is familiar to many through the plays of William Inge, who was born within a year of Gordon Parks and grew up 90 miles away. But for all the psychological nuance and cultural pressures Inge depicts, his plays give the impression of a racially homogeneous region. In fact, the Exoduster experiment in Kansas provided a petri dish of intellectual and artistic development, paradoxical political tendencies, and seeds of enduring resistance. By the 1950s, most of the African American communities in rural Kansas were decimated, a diaspora recorded in Parks’s photo-essay “Back to Fort Scott,” in which he tracked down his former classmates to cities like Chicago and St. Louis. But for a half century, the African American settlements in Kansas made an impact on culture and civil life that still resonates.
The title The Learning Tree comes from words spoken by Newt’s mother, Sarah. Cherokee Flats, she says, is like a learning tree—it provides roots from which a child can branch out. Our hope is that The Learning Tree: A Gordon Parks Digital Archive will preserve and disseminate the valuable lessons of the history not only of Gordon Parks, but of Fort Scott itself and of black Kansas.
View the online exhibition, "Homeward to the Prairie I Come", part of the K-State Gordon Parks Project initiated by the Beach Museum of Art and K-State Department of English.