by Rory D. Webb
As previewed last week, Macy's of Downtown Pittsburgh hosted a Black History Month event honoring the work of iconic photographer and film director Gordon Parks. A diverse group of upward of 100 people, both young and old, were seated in anticipation of the “In Conversation” panel discussion, as local DJ Nate Da Phat played classic soul and funk music from the '70s era that birthed Parks' most popular film, Shaft.
Veteran freelance writer/producer Joseph Lewis hosted the panel discussion, while fellow Pittsburgh-based entrepreneur and Emmy-award winning producer Emmai Alaquiva joined as a member of the panel. Alongside Alaquiva were prestigious actors Terrell Tilford and Malinda Williams. In addition to his recent acting role as Sean Clarke on VH1's television series Single Ladies, Tilford is a painter and artist himself. Williams has acted in films including A Thin Line Between Love and Hate, The Wood and Idlewild, and may be best known for her role as Tracy “Bird” Joseph Van Adams on the popular drama series Soul Food, which aired on Showtime from 2000-04.
The conversation at Macy's included a variety of topics related to the panel members' individual artistic background and how Gordon Parks has influenced their lives and work.
“My interest in the arts was more about depicting life,” explained Williams. “I was just a child growing up who saw these interesting characters and interesting people and wanted to share them with the world.”
“You know, it's a privilege to be an artist, and I have to remind a lot of young people about this,” added Tilford. “We don't do a regular 9 to 5 job, some of us are incapable of doing so.”
Alaquiva, who is founder of the Hip-Hop On L.O.C.K. youth arts education program and currently manages his own video production company, acknowledged the life and work of Gordon Parks as an inspiration. He told the story of Parks being birthed a stillborn baby with no heartbeat. As the story goes, the family doctor declared Parks dead before another doctor went through with an idea to immerse the newborn in ice-cold water. The shock caused his heart to begin beating, as the infant Parks cried and came to life.
“When I hear that story, I connect,” said Alaquiva. “In so many ways as a young man growing up I felt like I was dead, but finding arts at the age of 13, and finding music and falling in love with hip-hop was my first introduction into the arts.”
Alaquiva added about Parks: “His legacy inspires me as a filmmaker, and as a photographer, and as an artist in general to continue to chase my dreams and to continue to use every second as a lifetime.”
“Gordon Parks was an ordinary man who did extraordinary things,” said Tilford, who is a long-time collector of art and fan of Parks' work.
“Of the works in my collection, and I own almost four hundred pieces, there's a piece by Carl Sidle... He shot a photograph of Gordon Parks with a silhouette of a tree over Mr. Parks' face. And, it's appropriately titled 'The Learning Tree,'" explained Tilford, who was evidently impacted by the piece as he began to tear up while talking about it. "The significance of that work resonates in terms of our journey as a people. And when I see that tree and the silhouette over his face, it reminds me of the journey, the struggle, the all that our predecessors gave so that it would even enable us to be here right now."
Like Alaquiva and Tilford, Williams shared a story about Parks that has had a profound impact on her life.
“I remember him saying something, and I'm paraphrasing, that at one point in life he wasn't sure where he was going or what he was going to do but he knew he had a fear of failure,” said Williams. “And that resonated with me because ... in some respects I have a fear of failure, but I also in some respects have a fear of success. What Gordon Parks said was 'I just knew that I would spend the rest of my life beating that down, chasing down my fear of failure.'”
As the “In Conversation” panel discussion concluded, the audience made their way to the table of concessions that was provided by Savoy Restaurant. Lewis, Alaquiva, Tilford, and Williams continued to talk with attendees and share their appreciation for this informative event that Macy's put together.
“Macy's has a tremendous responsibility, being an American staple from a commercial aspect, to give back to the community,” said Alaquiva. “And the fact is that Macy's doesn't necessarily just take one month to recognize African-American history, or diverse history. They do this year-round, it just so happens to be that it's February so we're gonna celebrate Black History Month.”