The Assembly’s monthly literary column highlights all things books in the Old North State. Author Wiley Cash helms the newsletter, which includes older books with new relevance, new titles with timely appeal, reviews, author Q&As, and excerpts. You can sign up for the newsletter here.
This month’s featured interview is with Glenda Elizabeth Gilmore, author of the recently released Romare Bearden in the Homeland of His Imagination: An Artist’s Reckoning with the South. You can read more about the book in this month’s column.
Gilmore is a Professor Emeritus of History at Yale University, and author of the books Defying Dixie and Gender & Jim Crow, among others.
The following is a lightly edited transcript.
Wiley Cash: What was your early interest in Bearden and his work?
Glenda Gilmore: I was living in Charlotte from 1973 to 1994, which was during the Bearden Renaissance, when Bank of America was buying his paintings. He’d had a 1970 exhibition at the Mint, and Bearden was commonplace, but the stories that we heard about him were very vague.
Most people understood him at that time in Charlotte just vaguely to be a self-taught artist, and to have grown up as a poor African American. None of that was the case. So I began thinking, in the early 2000s, about writing this book. It was a journey that I never expected to take really or to end up where I did, but basically I’ve been with Bearden all this time and reinvented my own imagination. It wasn’t until the end of the book that I could look at the paintings and interpret them in my own way.
WC: I love how you delineated the difference between remembering and recalling, especially as it relates to jazz music. Could you talk about that?
GG: Memory has always really interested me because it’s constructed; it’s never just straightforward. And as you live and get older, you get it in snippets. Bearden used the jazz analogy to say, “I’m not remembering this thing. I’m recalling it.” Call and response: he would put out a call and there would be a response.
Part of what he is so good at is recapturing the material culture of the South at the turn of the 20th century, and that, for me, was fascinating. He kept a Sears Roebuck catalog in his studio and used it to think about interiors, and he kept a memory of his family’s garden. Snatches of that come through a child’s eyes, like his fixation with his great-grandfather’s tiger lilies that were so exotic to a little boy. And because he left the South when he was 4 or 5, under pretty traumatic circumstances, I think that those memories and recollections, the recalling of them, was, by nature, episodic and very far away in time. He’s recalling not false stories, but partial stories.
WC: I don’t know if it’s nostalgia or trauma, but this feels like a distinctly Southern exercise of restructuring the past in some way.
GG: Well, southerners are haunted by the past, and they have every reason to be so. Bearden, leaving at that young age, was haunted because he didn’t have explanations of what happened in Charlotte. Part of the reason why white Southerners are haunted, if they’re old enough, is because of racism. They grew up mostly oblivious in a racist culture and had to come of age and grapple with that. And it was never a passive exercise. It was an active exercise to do that.
Black people, having had their pasts stolen from them in a variety of ways, hold on to their ancestors. Any region that had that much trauma in daily life isn’t nostalgic, I think it’s haunted.
WC: I was struck by how many major historically significant characters were in the orbit of Bearden and his family. Did this surprise you?
GG: When I was writing my second book, Defying Dixie, his mother appeared a lot in the newspapers and the archives. She was an amazing product of self-invention. She was a Democratic politician. She was the assistant commissioner of the IRS. But mostly, everyone loved her. She had card parties where she befriended down and out artists in Harlem. Everyone knew the Beardens. They were incredibly prominent.
His cousin by marriage, Charles “Spinky” Alston, was also prominent. That part of the family had also left Charlotte and gone to New York. They had a large circle of not just acquaintances, but people who were like-minded, who were progressive politically, and who were artistic. Everyone liked Bearden, too. He was genial, convivial. He spent a great deal of time painting, but also with his friends, listening to music, being out and about in Harlem.
WC: You thoroughly explore Bearden’s work and walk the reader through his art, which use these fractured bits of material like graphite drawings, watercolor, and magazine clippings. He’s doing the same thing with his memories. As you said, he’s using these pieces of memory to construct a “whole.” Were you as fascinated by that as I was?
GG: Yes. Bearden always said he was a cubist, even though his style changed two or three times and his genres changed before he took up collaging in earnest. Part of the challenge for me in this book was that I’m not an art historian. I had a lot of help from art historians while I was writing this, but basically, I had to learn how to look, and really, really look, at those paintings.
WC: You note Bearden’s deep education in the arts, but, as you discuss in the book, there is a pervasive assumption that he was self-taught. Do you think this is code for being a culturally influenced Black creator instead of a member of the academy?
GG: Bearden’s education couldn’t have been better. For an artist, he has a great deal of training. I think that people took the collages as primitive. And that’s the problem with “self-taught.” It’s linked to primitive art. So a little part of it is the culture he depicts. They assume it’s his only lived experience and that anyone who would work with those subjects would be self-taught.
WC: Was there anything in your research that surprised you about the city of Charlotte or the region?
GG: What really surprised me was the day I went and stood in the front yard of what had been the Bearden family complex in downtown Charlotte. I looked across the street, and I saw those train tracks in the distance with a mountain behind them. I was standing in the physical setting of so many of Bearden’s collages.
Wiley Cash is the New York Times bestselling author of four novels and the founder of This Is Working, an online creative community. He’s been a fellow at Yaddo and the MacDowell Colony, and he teaches fiction writing and literature at the University of North Carolina-Asheville. He lives in North Carolina with his wife, photographer Mallory Cash, and their daughters.