Letters between Father & Son--Topic:
To Smile in Autumn: A Memoir
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A Son Goes to War
By Gordon Parks
By November 1965 the bitter ordeal of Vietnam had
escalated to a large-scale undeclared war, and as we plunged
deeper into the futility of it, my youngest son David was
He was scheduled to leave on November 17. Several draftee
friends of his--undecided whether they'd fight or not--had begun
gathering at our place to discuss the situation. Overhearing
them from my den, measuring the passion in their voices, I tried
to decide who, in the end, would go and who would not. Besides
David there was Morton and Arnold, two Jewish brothers; Joseph
and Harold, two blacks; Johnny, an Irishman; Jimi, a West
Indian; and Bruce, a young man from Pennsylvania. The Jewish
brothers seemed hopelessly split on the issue, as were the two
blacks. the Irishman and the West Indian were reluctant, but
they vacillated with the stronger course of the argument, not
knowing which way to go. David seldom ventured an opinion, but
Bruce was definitely gung ho. "Those Commie bastards need
their asses kicked real good, and I'm for getting it over
Morton: You're beginning to sound like McCarthy.
Bruce: It's got nothing to do with him. I'm talking
about Communist aggression.
Joseph: The communists haven't done anything to me. I
don't have no reason for picking up a gun against them. If the
war was against Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia. I'd sign up
in a minute. Don't give me that crap about aggression.
Arnold: Remember Hitler, Joe.
Joseph: And you remember Medgar Evers, Selma, and the
Ku Klux Klan!
Jimi: Man, I just don't know. It's twelve of one, half
a dozen of the other.
Harold: If we blacks are going to have a voice at the
peace table, we'll have to fight for it like everybody else.
Joseph: Bullshit! Why don't you get with history, man.
Get with history!
Morton: I'm going to be a rabbi--I'm strictly against
Bruce: Even if somebody's out to kill you?
Morton: This is not our war--we're making it ours.
We're as much the aggressor as anyone else.
Joseph: Amen, Brother rabbi. Amen.
Johnny: It doesn't matter who the aggressor is. We're
in this mess either way. I don't want to kill anybody either;
and I don't want anybody trying to kill me. But, well, this is
my country and I suppose it's my responsibility to help defend
Joseph: You're white, baby. It's easy for you to think
that way. maybe you feel you owe this country something. I
Johnny: Perhaps you're right, man. Hell, I just don't
know. What's your thinking about all this. Parks? You've hardly
said a word.
David: I'm thinking, fellows—just thinking.
It went that way night after night, without my knowing what
David was thinking, or of how the Selma, Mississippi, and
Alabama incidents had affected him. But I knew he was turning it
all over in his mind, deciding in his own stubborn way. That's
how he was, how we had been since he was a small child. He never
talked to me about it--just showed me his papers when they came,
smiled, and shrugged his shoulders. I wasn't going to try and
influence him one way or the other. It was his life and his
decision to make. I was concerned, and I was prepared to back
him up regardless of what he decided. But, if necessary, I would
remind him that those whites he had seen in Selma did not
reflect the nature of the entire white society; that the
blood of three white ministers. Reverend Reeb, Richard Morrisroe,
and Donald Thompson—and many others—had been spilled in our
behalf. Then, too, he had just finished reading Choice of
Weapons, which had been published only a few months earlier.
noticed he didn't pack any clothes the day before he was
scheduled to go, and i slept very little that night. Elizabeth
was equally concerned, but she held her silence. At dawn we
heard David stumbling about. i got up and peered into the
hallway, seeing only a pair of ski poles and some boots. as he
going skiing, or tot he army? "What's up, David?" I
"My number!" he hollered back. "I'm
getting ready to meet the man!"
I was relieved but
unhappy. before he left that morning I put a 35mm camera and a
large supply of film into his bag, telling him, "Take some
pictures in your spare time, keep a diary, and get it off to me
whenever you can. Good luck, and remember—we're not anxious to
have any heroes in the family." We embraced for a long
moment and he was gone. naturally, we were worried, and we
prayed he would come back someday, but we were aware and
frightened of the odds against it. Considering the mood of the
country he was off to defend, we could only hope that if he
lived he would not have to return to yet another battleground.
but with twenty-one million black voices chanting even stronger,
"We shall overcome." It seemed that the revolt would
go on despite the white man's stiffening resistance.
David was heading for would be far different from what he was
leaving. My children had loved the White Plains house. It had
been a small bungalow on two lots when I acquired it back in
1945, but after our return from France I had purchased some
adjoining properties, and redesigned and expanded the place.
Where a field of wild sumac once grew there now sprawled a
forty-foot living room with a shed roof and an oval,
bubble-shaped skylight. Surely he would miss those snowbound
nights when stars jeweled the sky and, with a fire blazing in
the huge fireplace, we'd sit in darkness, drowning in
Rachmaninoff or Brahms.
There were three fireplaces
altogether—the one in the living room, another in the dining
room, and a third in an upper bedroom. During the holidays we
kept all three burning. It was a rambling place designed for
pleasant living and thinking, for reading good books and
listening to good music. The summers were equally pleasant. A
great towering willow and an army of strong oaks lorded over the
garden that nature and a flower-worshipping gardener had
created. Nestled in the center was a swimming pool--blue and
cool under the hot sun, black and glistening under soft
The wild flowers of spring always started things
off. Bursting up from the earth impatiently, they spread in
armies of violets, pinks, and blues, shooting up everywhere,
taking over before the larger plants could overshadow them.
trembling in the April rains and hugging the soil during high
winds, they were so different from the tall, gangly sunflowers
of my Kansas childhood.
Then came the heat of may, burning the
colors one into another. only the wizened morning-glory curled
into itself to escape those melting noons, while the pink and
white Azaleas opened their petals against the light. in June and
July all the plants ripened to every hue and color imaginable. I
used to wish for that Bougainvillaea that took over our place in
the south of France--that stubborn, discriminating species that
graces only climates of its own desire.
All this and more
David would miss.
* * * * *
A letter to David somewhere in Vietnam (April,
thought that this war would hang around until you became
a part of it. Sometimes I find myself wishing that you
and Gordon would have been born at another time. But
there has rarely been a time when men were not fighting
As you know, we are
having our troubles back here. The racial strife,
especially in Alabama and Mississippi, is bad. But the
televised performances of certain Southern lawmen are
starting to fill the consciences of whites all over the
I mention this because it is
something hopeful that might help you to tolerate one
evil while we, back here, fight another one.
for the prejudice you are finding there, understand that
war does not always, bring out the best in people.
You surely know by now, that a bigot ambushed in a
foxhole won't be a bit concerned about the color of the
soldier who comes to save him. Danger tends to pull
people together; after it has passed expect business as
usual. There are bits of venom in some of your entries.
You don't have time for it, and it doesn't fir you well.
Do what you have to do an come home quickly as possible.
is expecting, so you will have either a new brother or a
new sister when you return--maybe both. When Elizabeth
does something she does it big. We are both astonished
at the quiet of this place with you gone, although
Elizabeth is not exactly the noiseless wonder. We miss
you. Harper follows me around growling for those bones
you used to save for him. Your ski boots yawn from
boredom, and your empty bed looks like a fallen tree
stripped of its bark.
all. Try somehow to make peace with this miserable war
you must fight. We love you and wish we could slice time
off your absence.
To Smile in Autumn: A Memoir
(1979) by Gordon Parks, chapters 19 and 21.
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Salvage the Bones
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On one level, Salvage the Bones is a simple story about a poor black family that’s about to be trashed by one of the most deadly hurricanes in U.S. history. What makes the novel so powerful, though, is the way Ward winds private passions with that menace gathering force out in the Gulf of Mexico. Without a hint of pretension, in the simple lives of these poor people living among chickens and abandoned cars, she evokes the tenacious love and desperation of classical tragedy. The force that pushes back against Katrina’s inexorable winds is the voice of Ward’s narrator, a 14-year-old girl named Esch, the only daughter among four siblings. Precocious, passionate and sensitive, she speaks almost entirely in phrases soaked in her family’s raw land. Everything here is gritty, loamy and alive, as though the very soil were animated. Her brother’s “blood smells like wet hot earth after summer rain. . . . His scalp looks like fresh turned dirt.” Her father’s hands “are like gravel,” while her own hand “slides through his grip like a wet fish,” and a handsome boy’s “muscles jabbered like chickens.” Admittedly, Ward can push so hard on this simile-obsessed style that her paragraphs risk sounding like a compost heap, but this isn’t usually just metaphor for metaphor’s sake. She conveys something fundamental about Esch’s fluid state of mind: her figurative sense of the world in which all things correspond and connect. She and her brothers live in a ramshackle house steeped in grief since their mother died giving birth to her last child. . . . What remains, what’s salvaged, is something indomitable in these tough siblings, the strength of their love, the permanence of their devotion.—
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The White Masters of the
The World and Africa, 1965
By W. E. B. Du Bois
W. E. B. Du Bois’
Arraignment and Indictment of White Civilization
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Ancient African Nations
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