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Gordon Parks's The Learning Tree


Why Gordon Parks and The Learning Tree?

Gordon Parks was a prominent artist who created photography that propelled him to the forefront of the field and overcame a number of prejudices that exclude African Americans from artistic communities. By and far, his most prominent work was developed in his early years, when he focused on social justice and civil rights before, during, and after the height of those movements in the United States. Even as he aged, he innovated, creating photography that pushed the boundaries of photography’s capability, experimenting with both storytelling and technique. Parks legacy is overwhelmingly dominated by this photographic legacy.Recent publications about Parks and sponsored by the Gordon Parks Foundation emphasize his photographic contributions to art.

However, beyond his photography, Parks was an incredible multi-modal producer of art: he actively wrote in multiple genres, composed music, and took part in the whole range of film production and direction techniques. Our digital archive will fill the gap in digital resources about Parks, which tend to focus on his photography, by exploring how this multimodal activity creates new understanding of not only Parks’ most famous works,like his Civil Rights photographs, but also his less prominent materials. These collectively will offer a window into not only Parks’ cultural legacy but the larger cultural context in which he worked for researchers, students and members of the general public. 

We to develop the project in a series of modules. Our first module will be a multi-modal examination of his 1964 semi-autobiographical novel The Learning Tree, which subsequently Parks adapted and directed as a 1969 film. The film reaches deep into Parks’ development as an artist, starting as Boston Museum of Fine Arts curator Karin Haas recently argues, in a visit to and series photograph of former classmates in Fort Scott in 1949 or 1950. From there, he became motivated to reinvestigate his childhood experience by write his autobiographical novel The Learning Tree which was published in 1964. Subsequently he produced a film adaptation of this work. That adaptation involved Parks’ hand in every element, from the script, to the direction, to the music score. As a holistic process, The Learning Tree offers something none of Parks’ other works explicitly highlight: his involvement in many different mediums of artistic expression. 

Additionally, the first module of the project will allow us to profile something uniquely Kansan: not only was the film produced in Scott’s hometown of Fort Scott, Kansas, but also, most of the archival records related to the film reside in collections across the state, including K-State Special Collections, Fort Scott Community College’s Gordon Parks Museum, and Wichita State's Special Collections. By bringing together these materials in one place, we can ask questions of the legacy of Parks within our regional culture and within a particularly place-based experience of identity. We this as an important part exploring the human elements involved in the greater prairie region in and around the state of Kansas. Moreover, because Parks was an African-American growing up in Kansas during the early part of the 20th century, we see these materials as an opportunity to explore the minority experience within Kansas.
Thus as we develop our project we will be focusing scholarly activities to investigate the following two sets of questions:


  • How did Parks’s Role as a writer influence his multi-modal production of cultural objects? What do we learn about his interventions into large social issues and contemporary artistic expression through his literary production?
  • How did Parks’s work on The Learning Tree reflect the cultural moment of Kansas? What is the lasting legacy of that film do for our knowledge of Kansas more generally? 


Scope and Structure

Currently, we are maintaining a limited scope of materials: those which directly reflect on Parks development of the Learning Tree novel and film. All materials should support the scholarly assessment of the context of those two works in light of the capabilities of our platform and the current scholarship about Parks and his work.


For more information about our editorial process and our technology, see our Editorial Guidelines page. 


Content Advisor/Editor - Katy Karlin, Department of English, Kansas State University


Content Advisor/Editor - Cameron Leader-Picone, Department of English, Kansas State University

Project Manager - Alex Stinson, DHCenter@KSU, Kansas State University

DH advisor - Mark Crosby, Department of English and DHCenter@KSU, Kansas State University


Technical advisor - Amanda Harlan, Metadata Librarian, KSU Libraries



Anthony Crawford, Curator Of Manuscripts,  KSU Archives And Special Collections


ENGL 695, Spring 2014 Creation Team

This project's inspiration draws on the work of a team of graduate and undergraduate students during a Spring 2014 Digital Humanities class.  The students' work merged with this project.  You can browse screenshots of the students' work to see how it became the starting point for this project.

Lacey Brummer

Elijah Kampsen

Carmen Schober

Stephanie Scott


Student Contributors

Spring 2014 ENGL 220 Students

Fall 2014 ENGL 386 Students

Kenan Dannenburg
Huxley Gay

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