The Assembly’s monthly literary column highlights all things books in the Old North State – helmed by best-selling author Wiley Cash.
Romare Bearden in the Homeland of His Imagination: An Artist’s Reckoning with the South by Glenda Elizabeth Gilmore
To say that I was completely enchanted by Glenda Gilmore’s new book on the late artist Romare Bearden is an understatement. Perhaps it was the book’s focus on Bearden’s artistic practice of harnessing imagination to inform the scant memories he had of his early childhood in Charlotte. Or perhaps it was the inclusion of so many gorgeously reprinted examples of Romare’s work, many of which are resonant of the dreaminess that pervades the collages he made near the end of his life when he was drawing upon his lost Southern childhood.
Or maybe the feeling I had upon closing the final page—one of menace-tinged nostalgia—is the result of Gilmore’s affecting prose as she tracks the evolution of Bearden’s art. She also simultaneously unfolds the history of his family and the South, especially Charlotte, from a stronghold of Black middle class life during Reconstruction to a hive of oppression and fear that families like his were forced to flee during the Great Migration.
Bearden’s great-grandparents, Henry B. Kennedy and Rosa Catherine Gosprey Kennedy, were both enslaved to the father of future president Woodrow Wilson when they married in Augusta, Georgia, in 1863. Rosa gave birth to their only child in 1865, a daughter they called Cattie. In the 1870s they moved to Charlotte, where they set about building a respectable and enviable life in a city that teemed with possibility for Black Americans during Reconstruction.
In what is now known as uptown Charlotte, the Kennedy family owned a large Victorian home on South Graham Street, two rental properties next door, and a convenience store. In 1872, Henry secured a job as a federal railway mail-service worker, ensuring their place in the burgeoning Black middle class. Although Cattie lost her husband after giving birth to three children, including Bearden’s father, Howard, the family thrived.
But the rise of Black citizens in the South would not stand in the face of the white supremacy campaigns that marked the end of the 19th century. By the time of Romare Bearden’s birth in 1911, discrimination and disenfranchisement kept his father from voting, buying property, or finding employment that would support a middle-class family. And in 1913, the newly elected Wilson, whom Bearden’s great-grandfather had known back in Georgia, segregated federal offices and oversaw the firing of Black federal railway mail clerks. Like so many other Black Southerners, Bearden’s mother and father moved north with their young son, settling in New York City in 1915.
Gilmore argues that in looking back on the better, more equitable years his family spent in Charlotte, Bearden makes use of his hybrid approach to the past, combining his memory and his imagination.
One particular example of Bearden recalling the past he perceived—as opposed to remembering the past he did not experience—is a series of collages dedicated to an older neighbor he remembered as Maudell Sleet. The series focuses on her garden, a place that Bearden remembered as lush and potent with the powerful matriarch exercising control over the natural world. He remembers stories about the ghost of Maudell’s husband, which only served to make her more mysterious and powerful.
But as Gilmore points out, there is one problem with Bearden’s recollection: There is no record of a Maudell Sleet ever living in Charlotte. However, there was a young woman named Maude Morgan, who married a man named Walter Slade in 1908. Slade’s parents lived near the Kennedy-Bearden family, and Celia Slade kept a garden where she probably put her young daughter-in-law, Maude, to work.
Within a few years, Slade abandoned his young wife, and he and his parents left for Washington, D.C., which would have been scandalous to Bearden’s family. Perhaps the community spoke of Slade as Maude’s “ghost husband,” a term then applied to married men who left their wives. Although the marriage eventually recovered, for a time Maude was left behind to tend the garden—giving birth to Bearden’s memory of Maudell Sleet and her ghost husband.
In Gilmore’s book, there are many examples of Bearden relying on his imagination to fill in the gaps of memory, especially in the later work that specifically speaks to his early childhood in Charlotte. So many of his collages contained the train tracks he would have seen from his great-grandparents’ front yard, the low hills looming in the distance.
But there is also a detailed exploration of the many forms Bearden’s art took over the decades and the many styles he engaged with. Bearden, who always thought of himself as a cubist, refined his aesthetic through decades defined by social realism, abstract expressionism, modernism, and postmodernism, eventually finding a nesting place in the Black Arts Movement of the late 1960s and early ’70s. He used collage to combine the various genres, including watercolor and drawing. Gilmore makes clear that Bearden’s collage was revolutionary, somehow bringing a sense of movement and fluidity to work largely comprised of rectangles and sharp angles.
In the book’s introduction, Gilmore, a Professor Emeritus of History at Yale University, states that she uses Bearden’s art in three ways: “to illuminate his family’s and his own experiences, to explore his own Black imaginary, and to carry the narrative thread of his artist practice over the decades.”
She accomplishes all of this, but she also does something else: She invites the reader to consider the ways in which we all construct our past by some strange alchemy of memory and creativity, filling in the gaps with stories we have heard or things we have dreamed or imagined. Does this make the past any less real? Does it make the people who inhabit it any less alive.
Gilmore will be in Charlotte at the Mint Museum Uptown to discuss her book on October 19. If you go, make sure to walk a few blocks north and stop at the corner of South Graham Street and West Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. This is where Bearden’s family once lived, where he first perceived the South that would so influence his life’s work.
Perhaps you will sense the train tracks or the presence of the distant hills. If you look one block west, you will see Bank of America Stadium, where Maudell Sleet’s garden once stood. Who knows? Maybe it’s still there.
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.