Post Road Magazine #28

The Learning Tree by Gordon Parks

Katherine Karlin

When The Learning Tree was published, in 1963, its author, Gordon Parks, was already a famous photographer; his pictorial essays for Life magazine humanized his African-American subjects in the context of the early Civil Rights movement, and he was fashion lensman of choice for Chanel and Dior. The Learning Tree was Parks's first work of fiction, and the significance of its publication coinciding with the historic March on Washington was probably not lost on the author, who drew from his experience of growing up black in 1920s southeast Kansas for his coming-of-age story. Parks, who died in 2006 at the age of ninety-three, was yet to enjoy even greater successes-as a chronicler of the Black Power movement, the portraitist of his good friend Muhammad Ali, and the director of the 1971 Blaxploitation hit, "Shaft." In fact, "Shaft" was his second movie; in 1969, he adapted his own book, The Learning Tree, shot on location in Kansas-it was the first Hollywood studio film to be directed by an African-American, a distinction that has faded as fast as the movie's sun-drenched Technicolor palette.

The moment of The Learning Tree's appearance is best appreciated, though, if you read the book in response to the cultural juggernaut ofTo Kill a Mockingbird. Harper Lee's novel came out in 1960, the classic film two years later; there's no question that Parks was writingThe Learning Tree as the nation was under the formidable spell of Atticus Finch. You can see it in the very structure of the story. Like Mockingbird, Parks's novel has at its center a feisty young protagonist, Newt Winger-a sensitive, highly intelligent boy (he is twelve when the book opens, nearly sixteen at the end) whose imagination extends beyond his hometown of Cherokee Flats, based on Fort Scott, where Parks grew up.The Learning Tree reaches its climax with a dramatic courtroom scene that echoes the prosecution of Lee's Tom Robbins. And, of course, The Learning Tree is underpinned by the historical complications of race relations.

The key difference, of course, is that The Learning Tree is about black people, who play, at best, a functional role in To Kill a Mockingbird. And while Tom Robbins and the loyal Finch maid Calpurnia must bear the burden of representing their race, Parks's diverse cast of characters show the range of black experience, from the inquisitive Newt to his hard-working parents, Jack and Sarah, his aspirational girlfriend, Arcella, and the vicious town drunk, Booker Savage. Encompassing a village, Parks does not always succeed in avoiding stock personalities, like the lip-licking pastor who happens to show up at suppertime, or Newt's gang of interchangeably mischievous scamps. Yet there is genuine empathy in the depiction of Newt's nemesis, the drunk's hardened son, Marcus Savage, who is raised in conditions barely better than those of the Wingers' livestock. We also get a glimpse at Newt's light-skinned cousin, who must decide whether she will pass as white, and a fleeting mention of a tormented gay man which, while not exactly probing, is certainly not dismissive, and speaks to the breadth of Parks's photographic eye.

The Learning Tree departs from the Mockingbird narrative, too, in that it is about Kansas rather than the south; indeed, it's a story that could unfold only in Kansas. (Parks's decision to open both novel and movie with a scene of a destructive twister yokes his story to yet another beloved classic.) Freed blacks settled in Kansas after the upending of Reconstruction in the late 1870s, reasonably expecting that a state founded on the very tenets of anti-slavery, that was ground zero for the Civil War, would offer sanctuary from the organized vigilantism of the Ku Klux Klan. In the rural southeast portion of the state, black farmers purchased land with the hopes of a peaceable existence, the state borders buttressing them from the rabidly pro-slavery traditions of Missouri to the east, and the lawlessness of the Oklahoma Territory to the south. To say these hopes were dashed is to reduce the byzantine history of race relations in Kansas, nuances that Parks appreciates all too well. Early in the novel, after the twister cuts its swath of ruin, Newt's father climbs to the roof of the A.M.E. Church to repair its dislodged steeple. From this bird's eye view, Parks describes, in his sharply visual prose, Jack's panoramic view of Cherokee Flats:

The stone courthouse and jail (squatting smugly, medieval-castlelike, in the square) stood out strong and unscathed in the bright Saturday morning sun. But the secondary business area, lying a block to the west behind it, had suffered the brunt of the storm. Talbot's harness shop was flat on the ground, its crushed sides jutting out from under the broken roof. Comstock's store front, peeping from beneath two huge maple trees, sagged, cock-eyed and windowless, against nine two-by-fours. Blake's general store, Davis' bakery, Carson's drugstore, Sam Wong's laundry, Mack's hamburger shack, snuggling together when the storm struck, were now hopelessly tangled in a half-block pile of crumpled roofs and smashed walls. Sam, the village's only Chinese citizen, was dead somewhere in the rubble of broken bottles, shattered plaster, torn clothes, spoiled hamburger and baking dough, pots, pans, hardware, ladies' accessories, and such.

As Jack surveys the situation, he reflects on Kansas's peculiar brand of racism. He "had mixed feelings about this place. Like all other Kansas towns, Cherokee Flats wallowed in the social complexities of a borderline state. Here, for the black man, freedom loosed one hand while custom restrained the other." The contradictions of Kansas racial politics are registered not only in one small town but within individual characters: we see Newt's classmate Waldo in one scene bravely defending Newt's right to service in a drug store, and then casually calling his cousin "a nigger" in the next. Newt's mother works for the town judge, who is liberal-minded and generous, but who never lets Sarah forget that she is his servant.

Whereas Mockingbird gives its readers, presumably enlightened white people, the opportunity to feel superior to Depression-era southerners, The Learning Tree affords no such distance; the binaries of racist versus non-racist are not all that polarized. Moreover, it has at its center no heroic white savior, no Atticus Finch. If anyone inhabits the role of hero, it's Newt's indomitable mother, Sarah Winger. Any fan of "Shaft" will tell you that Parks is not the subtlest delineator of female characters, but he has created in Sarah perhaps his most admirable woman. With a couple of scenes deleted, she might have been reduced to an archetypal matriarch, holding the family together at all costs. But we also see her leading a fight to integrate the schools, questioning her faith, and briefly recalling both the rape she survived and the lynching of her brother. It is Sarah who encourages Newt's intellectual curiosity and artistic impulses, and it is she who speaks the title words, extolling the hidden benefits of Cherokee Flats.

The Learning Tree is not a rebuke to Harper Lee's classic. Rather, I think it's an attempt at a discussion, a gentle reminder that those who suffer have voices, too. And it is an astonishingly complete survey of a community that history has forgotten, for all its paradoxes. (Interestingly, the dramatist William Inge, the bard of Kansas, was born a year after Parks and grew up in the same corner of the state, but his sociologically astute plays manage to erase the black population.) As To Kill a Mockingbird goes into its bazillionth printing, The Learning Tree has tumbled into obscurity. It is in print. You can order the Fawcett paperback, the only version available, and I urge you to do so. But as soon as you get it, crack the spine with your elbow so you can read the text at the micro-margined gutter, and keep the book out of the humidity so the cheap paper doesn't disintegrate. This book deserves better.

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