S. Pearl Sharp Returns to 'The Learning Tree'

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Essayist S. Pearl Sharp goes in search of racial diversity in the Kansas hometown of filmmaker Gordon Parks. She returns to the town 40 years after she was a cast member in Park's classic film The Learning Tree.

ED GORDON, host:

Gordon Parks, the esteemed photojournalist, grew up experiencing segregation and racism that could have stopped him in his tracks. Instead, he broke new ground. Actress and filmmaker S. Pearl Sharp recently returned to Parks' hometown in Kansas to visit the new center that carries his name.

S. PEARL SHARP reporting:

The first time I rolled into Ft. Scott, Kansas, I was a young actress arriving to do my very first speaking part in a feature film--nervous, excited and scared to death I might forget my lines, all three of them. I had been cast as Gordon Parks' little sister in his autobiographical coming-of-age film "The Learning Tree."

(Soundbite of "The Learning Tree")

SHARP: (As Gordon Park's sister) You've got a girlfriend! You've got a girlfriend!

That's it. The line that was supposed to make me a star.

(Soundbite of song)

Unidentified Man: (Singing) Where grows the learning tree? By rivers that flow in the night...

SHARP: Parks was shooting the film where his first ideas were shaped, in his hometown, Ft. Scott.

(Soundbite of song)

Unidentified Man: (Singing) ...after sundown.

SHARP: We shot "The Learning Tree" in 1967. Parks made history as the first black to direct a feature film for a major studio. And that film is now an American classic, and Parks is still making history. Turning a young 93 this year, with two more books being published just before his birthday, he remains one of the most inventive and prolific artists of our time.

(Soundbite of song)

Unidentified Man: (Singing) Where grows the learning tree?

SHARP: In his most recent memoir, "A Hungry Heart," Parks writes, `I have reason to hope that bigotry is dead in my birthplace. I think I hear it singing, "What I am now is not what I used to be."'

Well, I'm about to find out, Gordon. I'm returning to Ft. Scott, Kansas, for the first time since working on the movie 37 years ago.

(Soundbite of music)

SHARP: From the Kansas City airport we drive south for more than an hour. Just outside of Ft. Scott, a wooden sign reads, `Welcome to the boyhood home of Gordon Parks.' The sign speaks to change. During Gordon's growing years in a town too small to have separate schools for blacks, a system of segregation still took root.

(Soundbite of "The Learning Tree")

Unidentified Woman: Don't you like it here, son?

Unidentified Boy: I don't know. I ain't been no place else.

Unidentified Woman: Not all good place. Not all bad place, either. Sort of like fruit on a tree. Some good, some bad. Let it be a learning tree.

SHARP: And then in 1967, the town wasn't too sure it wanted Parks and those Hollywood folks filming here, putting a spotlight on their souls, telling a story about race and righteousness. So who would've thought 37 years later there would be a center focused on diversity in Ft. Scott? But now the town celebrates the Gordon Parks Center for Culture and Diversity, which opened in April 2004. Housed inside the Ft. Scott Community College, it is the dream child of Jill Warford, an arts producer.

Ms. JILL WARFORD (Arts Producer): I see it is as an education teaching center to actually do some training in diversity within the schools when you can teach them about looking at a person instead of a person's skin color.

SHARP: Her statement is as much hope as reality. Jill Warford is white. Leticia Kelly(ph) works in the campus Learning Center and is one of several black residents I met who feel that the black community should've been more involved in the creation of the center, even though two of its board members are black.

Ms. LETICIA KELLY (Resident): They want the black people to cook the food. But as far as to help in anything else, they don't come and ask you that.

SHARP: Jill responds.

Ms. WARFORD: I saw more participation this year from the African-American community than I have before. But when you think about the fact that the population of Ft. Scott's 8,000 people and only 3 percent are black, that's a mere 240 people.

SHARP: A high school class from 35 miles down the road is bused in to attend one of the lectures on Parks' life. There is one, just one black girl among all of the visiting students. I observe her nervousness, her everyday strain to be like the other valley girls in a place where valley girl is itself an aberration. I pull her aside to say hello and to get a sense of how she's really getting through this. And when I put my arms around the girl, her eyes fill with tears.

(Soundbite of song)

Unidentified Women: (Singing) ...the learning tree.

SHARP: So where are the young black men? I hadn't seen any. Finally, I find three in a computer room, all imported here on athletic scholarships.

Mr. LASHAWN SAMUEL(ph) (Student): There wasn't no football team or no basketball team. You wouldn't see no brothers, you wouldn't see no sisters. You'll see white only.

SHARP: Lashawn Samuel hails from Florida. His teammate, Durrell McMullen(ph), is from Missouri.

Mr. DURRELL McMULLEN (Student): Where I come from, my school was 98 percent black in high school. So I felt like it's given me the opportunity to--I won't say open up, but be a little bit diverse.

Mr. SAMUEL: Only way most of us can go through this, we're here for a purpose. And like our parents back home wanted to get the purpose over with. So we're doing it for them and us.

SHARP: Just then the door that leads to the gym swings open and a large young brother strides through, dark sunglasses, one hand grabbing his privates on a body slouched into jeans riding right on the Mason-Dixon line. He, too, is a member of the football team. He stands out like an eight ball floating through vanilla ice cream in these halls and I can't help but wonder if this image isn't creating a problem for the larger population, like between one game and the next. African-Americans who are Ft. Scott natives share their take on it.

Ms. CYNTHIA MACK(ph): I look at it from the business point.

SHARP: Cynthia Mack works for a big box store.

Ms. MACK: I recently interviewed someone who goes to school out here. When he first came in for his interview, he was dressed really nice and he looked really presentable. And I was like, `Yes!' You know? And he just--he was wonderful. So we hired him. And he came in the next day dressed in a wifebeater, one of those white T-shirts, he had tattoos all over his arms, he had these big sunglasses on, he had a do-rag on, and I just went, `Oh, no.'

SHARP: No.

Ms. MACK: Because my manager saw him. He was like, `Who's this guy?' And I'm, like, `Oh, that's one of our new employees.' And he was just like, `Please, tell me he's not going to dress like this.' And I'm like, `Oh, I hope not.'

Ms. OLEATHA RIM(ph): White kids dress like that, too. But they look at the black people differently.

SHARP: Oleatha Rim joins the conversation.

Ms. RIM: They feel like, we're not worthy. More needs to be done, and I'm not just saying that the white people need to do it. We need to do it, too. Help each other out.

SHARP: Well, sorry, Gordon. Yeah, things are better, whatever that means. Yet like so many Ft. Scott's around the nation, there is this quiet discomfort right beneath the skin that bursts forth once in a while like goose pimples. But also in every small town, there is this, too. There is a learning tree full of possibilities and still growing.

(Soundbite of song)

Unidentified Man: (Singing) There grows the learning tree.

GORDON: S. Pearl Sharp is a writer, actress and filmmaker living in Los Angeles. Gordon Parks turns 93 today.

Thanks for joining us. That's our program today. To listen to the show, visit npr.org. NEWS & NOTES was created by NPR News and the African-American Public Radio Consortium.

I'm Ed Gordon and this is NEWS & NOTES.

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