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'Deeper Than Color'

Natalia J. Garland

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Two renowned people died on March 7, 2006. One was Gordon Parks, 93, a black author, photojournalist and film director. The other was Dana Reeve, 44, the widow of actor Christopher Reeve who played the role of Superman and who was rendered quadriplegic after an accident. Parks' death was only mentioned on television news. In his home state of Kansas, the Witchita Eagle newspaper provided a respectful tribute. Dana Reeve's death, however, was given major news and talk show coverage, and the couple's photograph was on the cover of the March 27th issue of People magazine.

A few days later, on March 17th, Oleg Cassini died at age 92. He was an immigrant of Russian background, and a fashion designer for Jacqueline Kennedy. His death also was only mentioned on television news and given the customary obituary in the newspapers. What makes one person's death more newsworthy than another's? Why did millions of people mourn Reeve, while only local people and family mourned Parks? How is it that Cassini died in media obscurity?

In order to understand the attention given to Dana Reeve's death, we need to go back to her husband's career and accident. Christopher Reeve began his acting career on Broadway, and in 1978 he became famous for his starring role in the movie, Superman. In 1995, the athletic Reeve suffered a spinal cord injury in a horseback riding competition. He spent the rest of his life paralyzed and in a wheelchair. On October 9, 2004, he died at age 52.

Dana Reeve remained a loving and caring wife to her disabled husband. Together they created the Christopher Reeve Paralysis Foundation and advocated for stem cell research. Their dedication to finding a cure for spinal cord injuries, and their devotion to each other, brought them acclaim from other movie stars, politicians, and fans. Dana Reeve wrote, "Something miraculous and wonderful happened amidst terrible tragedy, and a whole new dimension of life began to emerge." "What we had yet to discover were all the gifts that come out of sharing hardship, and the hidden pleasures behind the pain."

In a society filled with domestic discord, the Reeves modeled marital fidelity and companionship. Theirs was a love story. It was a love that traversed unexpected stages of alteration, rehabilitation, and transformation. They died comparatively young. Yet, they had lived life as fully as possible, overcoming the random cruelty of life. Many people of this generation found hope and courage in their example.

Gordon Parks belonged to a different generation, even though he continued working late into his life. In fact, as an elderly man, he considered himself to be just beginning. "And now, I feel at 85, I really feel that I'm just ready to start. There's another horizon out there, one more horizon that you have to make for yourself and let other people discover it, and someone else will take it further on, you know. You discover it. Somebody else takes it on. But I do feel a little teeny right now that I'm just about ready to start, and winter is entering. Half past autumn has arrived."

Parks was born in Kansas in 1912. He experienced racism and poverty. He used his camera as a positive way to cope with his feelings and to support civil rights for blacks. He worked for 20 years as a photographer for Life magazine. During those years, in 1963, he wrote his famous novel, The Learning Tree, and then developed it into his first movie in 1969. Parks followed with another movie, Shaft, in 1971. He continued with more movies, opening the door for the black entertainment business.

Although Parks' photographs and writings focused on the plight of blacks, his underlying themes transcended race. Parks wrote about the difference between right and wrong, and choosing to do the right thing. "The common search for a better life and a better world is deeper than color or blood." His most famous novel, The Learning Tree, is still recommended reading for college-bound high school students. Two years before his death, the Fort Scott Community College, located in Kansas, developed the Gordon Parks Center for Culture and Diversity. There is hope, therefore, that "...someone else will take it further on..."

If America is a land of immigrants, then the work of Oleg Cassini should have significance in itself and also in that it demonstrates the upward mobility possible for immigrants. Cassini's parents escaped Russia during the Revolution. Cassini was born in Paris, and his family later settled in Italy. His mother became a dressmaker. Cassini immigrated to America in 1936. He became famous when Jacqueline Kennedy hired him to create a unique style for her while she was first lady from 1961 to 1963. Cassini's most famous fashion contribution was the pillbox hat. In 2005, he said, "I'm doing things the way I've been doing them. Most men that I compete with put a stop to their career when they become typical."

Each of these individuals lived a life of struggle, risktaking, and success. They were born in different places and under different circumstances, but each overcame extreme obstacles without losing their humanity. They lived with purpose and intensity until the very end, making America a better place. (Written 06/05/06: bibliography available.)

Until we meet again..............stay sane.

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Copyright 2006 Natalia J. Garland