An essay-review of: The Romare Bearden Reader, edited by Robert G. O’Meally (Duke University Press, 2019).
Casual familiarity was the tone my great-grandmother’s oral history narratives assumed. As widow of the poet Countée Cullen, executrix of his literary estate, Ida Cullen-Cooper took pride in knowing everybody and everything connected to the Harlem Renaissance, including artist Romare (“Romie”) Bearden. Countée, his many friends, colleagues and students were referred to by first name or by nickname. It was as if they’d merely slipped out into the kitchen to fix themselves a snack, and were expected back any moment. Countée and Ida Cullen were among the first to purchase Romie’s artwork, and upon Countée’s sudden death six years after he married her, Ida Mae became a noted collector in her own right.
Our relationship grew and changed between the year I was born and the 11 months we spent together until her death two years before Bearden himself crossed over. I spent 21 years, 10 months and 29 days living and working in New York. But one visit in particular, more or less narrowed down by audio-visual impressions, stands out: The late Toni Morrison publishes Song of Solomon (1977) in a trade paper edition of yellow, maroon and black; actor Ruby Dee records Countée’s children’s book, The Lost Zoo, in 1978; an obituary of Harlem Renaissance artist Aaron Douglas, one of Romare Bearden’s mentors, appears in The New York Times in 1979. Until she downsized, Ida’s Tuckahoe house and Park Avenue condo had been virtual galleries of African and African-American art and culture: here a book by Langston Hughes, illustrated by Jacob Lawrence; there a first edition of Claude McKay’s Home to Harlem, with cover art by Aaron Douglas. She owned various artifacts: Benin bronzed heads, Dan masks; a painting by Beaufort Delaney, the close friend of Countée’s student Jimmy Baldwin; terra-cottas; a Hale Woodruff watercolor of medieval Chartres. She rewarded my curiosity with a docent tour.
“Palmer Hayden’s work,” she explained, “was more traditional. He didn’t go in for the abstract as much as some of the others did.”
“Hale Woodruff studied in Mexico with Diego Rivera. Taught at NYU for decades, child. I’ll take you down to the Village one day. See his old apartment. Introduce you to his family.”
“And these,” she pointed out a pair of bookends, “Countée commissioned Augusta Savage to create.” In Paris, the poet and the sculptor socialized between 1928 and 1930. My great grandmother explained that, although Savage had executed portrait busts of James Weldon Johnson and W.E.B. Du Bois with characteristic skill, many of her works were damaged, lost or simply destroyed because she couldn’t afford to have the clay or plaster cast in bronze.
I stop short before an object, bright red, blue and black: “Circe Turns a Companion of Odysseus into a Swine.” One of six closely supervised screenprints from his 1977 Odysseus Series, signed, numbered and custom-framed, it was given my great-grandmother as a present by her loyal friend, and was on proud display in her Kip’s Bay apartment. As clearly as I can sense the imagery of Jean Toomer’s sound-collages in Cane, I could hear the collar-beads and bangles the Africanized sorceress’s slender, near-naked figure adorns. Could see what John Edgar Wideman means when he writes, “All I really have to say is ‘dance’.” Circe’s arms flail, her feathered headdress preens, her torso thrashes to the downbeat of something like “Adoration of the Earth” or “Sacrifice” from The Rite of Spring; the right arm rises up above the altar where a skull’s displayed; phobic serpents coil up the left; Circe summons forth spirits investing her with the power to step un-imprisoned through the frame.
“That,” my great-grandmother’s proud, ancestral voice proclaims, startling me out of my trance, “is Romie.”
“One day,” the oracle continues, “you’ll meet his wife Nanette.” Then, matter-of-factly, “Lives down there on Canal Street, near Chinatown.”
What is it you see, asks Rachael Z. DeLue, in Romare Bearden’s artwork? Why is it you just can’t stop looking? How is it they remain, decades after his death, sources of what Wallace Stevens calls “imperishable bliss”?
A fitting complement to Schmidt-Campbell’s An American Odyssey: The Life and Work of Romare Bearden (2018), Robert G. O’Meally’s Romare Bearden Reader gathers nearly three dozen previously uncollected pieces, eight of them artist’s statements, book chapters, essays, journal entries, art reviews and speeches by Bearden himself dating from the mid-1930s to 1993. As a source of information about and insight into Bearden’s various periods, styles and media, The Romare Bearden Reader builds on foundations laid by Henri Ghent and Calvin Tomkins. This is reinforced by biographers like Myron Schwartzman in Romare Bearden: His Life and Art (1990) and Romare Bearden: Celebrating the Victory (1999), as-told-to accounts of Bearden’s working methods that do for the artist what Alex Haley does for Malcolm X in the Autobiography .
But the best guide on how to “read” a Bearden is Bearden. Gallery-goers and museum-goers, even those intimately familiar with his visuals, may not realize just how “literary” an artist Romie really was. His writer friends—James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison, Albert Murray, poet-painter Derek Walcott—admired the way he might refer to a sonnet by Drayton as casually as he would to a painting by Titian. Bearden enjoyed browsing bookstores with Murray, and amassed an impressive library of his own. Too much the perfectionist to pursue writing as a mere hobby, Bearden devoted Tuesdays and Thursdays to reading and research, spending as much time in libraries and archives as he did in museums and galleries.
As a writer, Romare Bearden didn’t come from out of nowhere. To put his writings in context, it helps to know when, where and why he published them. His mother Bessye Bearden was a columnist and editor for The Chicago Defender, part of a national network of black daily newspapers like the Baltimore Afro-American (to which Romare later contributed political cartoons) and the Pittsburgh Courier . During the fat years of the Harlem Renaissance, c. 1920-1930, when Romare was between the ages of 8 and 18, Bessye befriended black millionaire A’Lelia Walker. Walker owned a 34-room mansion in Upstate New York, in Irvington-on-Hudson. That was her weekend getaway. For day-to-day living, she preferred her Sugar Hill hideaway on Edgecombe Avenue. For partying, Walker also had twin townhouses in Harlem. These she proposed as a gathering place for ballet dancers, boxers, communist rabble-rousers, mobsters, movie stars, scientists and social-climbing gold diggers. The idea caught on, and Walker’s “at-homes” became a Wednesday night institution. Part literary salon, part night club, the Dark Tower, as it came to be known, was a place where, downstairs, guests could listen to Bessie Smith, drink bootleg liquor, dance. Upstairs, in the library, they could play bridge, comparing notes on literature and society with editors, publishers and talent agents. Parties legendary even by the standards of the Roaring 20s took place at the Dark Tower. And so it was that, on any given Wednesday, Arna Bontemps, W.E.B. Du Bois, Rudolph (“Bud”) Fisher, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Alain LeRoy Locke, Richard Bruce Nugent, Wallace (“Wallie”) Thurman or Dorothy West might be greeted by an African-American servant in a powdered wig and classical Renaissance doublet in the marble entrance hall decorated with Aubusson carpets and Louis XVI furniture. As New York host, A’Lelia Walker was the glue that held the Harlem Renaissance together. Part of her charm derived from the fact that she didn’t even pretend to like reading, and was visibly bored by high-brow conversation. She had a smart set of writer friends to do that kind of chore. What truly excited Walker was collecting. She accumulated 600 volumes of limited editions bound in Moroccan leather, reclining on custom-built shelves, and authored by Balzac, Boccaccio, Casanova, Marcus Aurelius, Plato, Rabelais and Rousseau. Walker collected books the way she collected royalty. If she wanted to hear a little music on her 24-carat-gold grand piano, Walker could simply invite George Gershwin over to play. Or Maurice Ravel, if he happened to be in Harlem, then considered an overseas arrondissement of Paris. No, Walker much preferred listening to live blues; or watching dancers glide across her parquet floors. As the Great Depression set in, the lean years of the Harlem Renaissance saw less affluent people like Bessye Bearden no longer splurging to get their hair done in the stylish salons where Walker made her millions. Walker went broke, and little by little, the treasures of Villa Lewaro were auctioned off—most of them, according to Bessye Bearden, for pennies on the dollar—some for as little as $1.50.
Even during the Depression, when Bessye Bearden entertained dignitaries in her parlor less often than she would have wished, President Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration enabled young visual artists like Romie to collaborate with literary artists in the way he would the rest of his life. By age 23, Bearden had already assumed his rightful place in what essayist Elizabeth Alexander calls a “literary continuum,” contributing—both “in print,” to quote W.E.B. Du Bois, “and in paint”—to “the African-American critical enterprise.”
Bearden’s first essay appeared in Opportunity, the Urban League publication for which Douglas had designed cover art in the mid-1920s. From the publication of “The Negro Artist and Modern Art” (1934) to the posthumously published children’s book Li’l Dan the Drummer Boy (2003), Bearden’s writings are indeed preoccupied with centuries-old, purely aesthetic questions of how two-dimensional media limited to horizontals and verticals can suggest a third dimension without recourse to the illusion of mechanical perspective or “mere photographic realism.” But in “The Negro Artist and Modern Art” we also encounter the political Bearden—an aspect of his art sometimes overshadowed by his connoisseurship, just as Bearden’s reputation for sonorous chords of color, harmonious or dissonant, sometimes obscures what Mary Lee Corlett calls his “consummate skills as a draftsman, accentuating both the delicacy and the powerful simplicity of his lines.” When Bearden says, “[t]he Negro artist must come to think of himself not primarily as a Negro … but [simply] as an artist,” he echoes Cullen’s notion, criticized in an earlier manifesto “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain” (1926), published in The Nation by Langston Hughes, that the Negro poet must come to think of himself not primarily as a Negro but simply as a poet.
Ralph Ellison recalls discovering Bearden during the mid-1930s, when Social Realism dominated the art scene. Both artists came of age between 1914 and 1935, between World War I and their respective studies at Depression-era New York University and Tuskegee. Each struggled, first to find an artistic medium and then to attain mastery within that medium. As a boy, Ellison had toyed with the alto sax. After leaving Tuskegee in 1936, he took a class with Harlem Renaissance sculptor Richmond Barthé, and “developed a more than casual interest in the visual arts.” Similarly, Bearden took a day job as social worker, and so came late to oils, thinking of himself as a painter rather than cartoonist only after mastering the rudiments of figure drawing under Berlin artist George Grosz. “When I first started to make pictures,” Bearden writes, “I was particularly interested in using art as an instrument of social change.” Yet, even in those early days, though “socially conscious and politically committed,” though dedicated to discovering what Bearden calls a “useable Black heritage” and Ellison calls “the relationship between our racial identity, our identity as Americans, and our mission as [artists],” both artists were nevertheless equally determined to avoid becoming either “effete exponents of ‘art for art’s sake’ on the one hand,” or “political hacks on the other.”
Another thing the literary artist shares with the visual artist is an aesthetic mirroring not only what O’Meally calls the “fragmentation” of black identity in the United States but also “complex layeredness,” its “refusal ever to be only one thing.” In “The Negro Artist’s Dilemma” (1946), published three years after his mother’s sudden death from pneumonia, Bearden challenges the “privilege of the oppressor to depict the oppressed.” He’d praised the way muralists like José Orozco, Diego Rivera and David Alfaro Siqueiros, though influenced by European masters, nevertheless created highly original work made in North America and steeped in themes like the Mexican Revolution. Why shouldn’t African-American artists do the same? If Epstein and Modigliani could profit from studying African sculpture, why shouldn’t Richmond Barthé study Saint-Gaudens? Eventually, beautifully variegated strains of African, Asian and European influence—from Benin bronzed heads or Dan masks to the poet-painters of classical Chinese calligraphy and Japanese portraiture to what, in The Painter’s Mind (1969), Bearden called “the great classical periods during the Tang, Ming and Sung dynasties” to the Ravenna mosaics—would come together in the bright tesserae of a Bearden masterpiece like Quilting Time (1986). Similarly, certain artistic, geographic, historical, linguistic, political, psychological or sociological motifs from Chekhov, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy and Turgenev successfully served as models for Ellison’s Invisible Man (1952).
Co-authored with Murray, “Rectangular Structure in My Montage Paintings” (1969) derives in part from Bearden’s 1968 interview with curator Henri Ghent, and appeared the same year Bearden and Carl Holty published The Painter’s Mind: A Study of the Relations of Structure and Space in Painting . So, the exclusion from The Romare Bearden Reader of perhaps duplicative and dauntingly technical material from The Painter’s Mind may be intentional. However, O’Meally provides no explanation for omitting some representative excerpt or other from Six Black Masters of American Art (1972). Bearden was as catholic in his appreciation of contemporary artists different from himself as he was of the Old Masters. Both the “painter of the Cézannesque still life” and the “painter of the Gauginesque nude,” both Loïs Mailou Jones (professor of design and watercolor at Howard University when Toni Morrison was there minoring in classics from 1949 to 1953) and children’s book illustrator Charles Sebree ( The Lost Zoo) as well as the Hale Woodruff of the “garish and strident” Amistad Murals. In Six Black Masters, Bearden devotes entire chapters both to predecessors like Augusta Savage or Horace Pippin—no more “primitive,” Bearden argues, than the douanier Rousseau—as well as to younger artists like Jacob Lawrence.
O’Meally’s survey of Romare Bearden as writer concludes with, among others, an excerpt from the posthumous A History of African-American Artists: From 1792 to the Present (1993). Conceived as early as 1965 and written in collaboration with Harry Henderson, the book Bearden died before finishing was envisioned as a corrective to what he perceived as art history’s neglect of African-Americans like Henry Ossawa Tanner—“a better painter,” Bearden argues, “than Prendergast; especially in his late paintings, the ones he did in the late ‘10s and ‘30s”.
As I said, writer Romare Bearden didn’t come from out of nowhere. Perhaps the Harlem Renaissance he literally came of age in didn’t so much flare out as continuously change venue, from turn-of-the-century gathering spots like the Marshall Hotel on West 53rd Street to the Dark Tower and other literary salons of the 1920s and 30s and so on to the jazz clubs, recording studios and concert halls of 52nd Street during the 1940s and 50s. Spirituals and ragtime evolved into blues. Blues evolved into early jazz. Jazz evolved into big band swing. Swing evolved into bebop and on into the Black Arts Movement. The Beats openly acknowledged their debt to writers like Langston and Arna, who as they collaborated on Poetry of the Negro were in turn discovering younger novelists, poets and playwrights like Amiri Baraka, Ed Bullins, Ted Joans, Larry Neal, Ishmael Reed and Alice Walker. So, to a very real extent the circle remained unbroken as visual artists like Romare Bearden and Jacob Lawrence (1917-2000), who in the early 40s had studios in the same building as Claude McKay, continued active years after Ida Cullen-Cooper died. The Harlem Renaissance had ceased to be an extant movement, but its scattered remnants hadn’t ceased to be a community.
Institution-builders kept building. It took three years, but Ida Cullen-Cooper successfully lobbied for the New York Public Library off Lenox next to the Schomburg, adjacent to what had been the original site of A’Lelia Walker’s Dark Tower, to be rededicated as the Countee [sic] Cullen Branch. Public School 194, on 144th Street, was likewise re-dedicated as the Countée Cullen School. Actively courted by archives, libraries, museums and other institutions, Ida Mae transformed into the kind of griot Henri Ghent and Calvin Tomkins portray Bearden himself being, granting audience to newspapers and radio, fielding inquiries from curators, receiving visits from scholars foreign and domestic. She came into her own, took over the family business and remained active in the cultural life of New York for the rest of her days—traveling, giving lectures and readings of Countée’s work. From 1947 to 1986, she was the living embodiment of a vanishing tradition.
Writers kept writing. Shortly after he and 3,000 other mourners attended Countée’s memorial service, Richard Wright left Greenwich Village for Paris, living the remainder of his days in exile. Jimmy Baldwin, who’d studied French and Creative Writing under Countée at middle school P.S. 139, followed in Wright’s footsteps two years later. The larger-than-life character my great grandmother called “Zoe-rah” died the year I was born. When I was in second or third grade, Jean Toomer died, and the “prose oratorio” (Nathan Huggins‘ phrase) called Cane was “rediscovered.” It sold all of 500 copies during the author’s lifetime, but Arna admired its “fractured unities” so intensely that he archived for the Fisk University Library every scrap of paper Toomer ever doodled on—15 cartons worth. Alice Walker made pilgrimage to Zora’s grave when I was a junior in high school. Langston, complaining he’d become a de facto unpaid ambassador for the State Department, frittering away his writing time entertaining authors like Wole Soyinka and Léopold Senghor at Kennedy White House state dinners, wrote relentlessly till he couldn’t write anymore. After 65 years of “squeezing life,” as Countée put it, “like a lemon,” Langston taxied himself to a hospital, checked in with severe abdominal pains, and died two weeks later. As his body was wheeled into the crematorium, they chanted from “The Negro Speaks of Rivers.” When I was a freshman in high school, Arna—who never stopped publishing, books for children such as I’d been or young adult biographies and histories for teens such as I now was—died of a heart attack, aged 70, while working on a short-story collection.
Growing up when, where and how I did meant two things. In late 1960s and mid 1970s San Francisco and its Silicon Valley suburbs, it meant there were black role models in this boy’s life, Romare Bearden being just one of many. Which meant that, unlike Dorothy West half a century earlier, I never wanted to become the “great Negro writer” she eventually became in works like “Elephant’s Dance: A Memoir of Wallace Thurman.” But I could relate to Countée’s just wanting to be a poet, not “a Negro poet.” I read all kinds of books and authors, hundreds of them: books on art history; literature; fiction and nonfiction; Latin American authors; black women writers; Dead White Males; writers ranging from Henry Adams to Marguerite Yourcenar. More than once, I read Ellison’s Great African-American Novel. I also watched hundreds of feature films and documentaries. But I spent most of my time lugging around a crate full of filters, a heavy tripod and an Omega 4x5 view camera, or looking at Mark Rothko or Clyfford Still at the De Young and Legion of Honor museums.
Romie and Nanette visited the Caribbean for the very first time in 1960. His friend Ida Cullen-Cooper wintered in St. Croix. With advancing age, each suffered during New York cold snaps, Ida from Reynaud’s disease, and Romie from a stiff back and aching joints. When he retired from his day job, Romie and Nanette began spending each February through March on Dutch/French island of St. Martin, where his watercolors lay drying in the sun. By the time I entered high school, he’d begun making artwork from cut-outs of pre-painted construction-paper, cobalts and clarets, hues more saturated than his earlier pastels. The small but influential following he’d had been building among curators and collectors since the 1930s grew to the point where in the early 1970s Bearden finally received the recognition that had eluded him in past decades: a Guggenheim fellowship; a solo retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art; election to the National Institute of Arts and Letters. Bearden was now a full-time painter with a winter home in the Dutch-French Caribbean, where he and his wife Nanette could escape the long New York winters. This change in circumstance benefited both his writing and his art. By the time I graduated high school, printmaking became one of the ways in which Bearden was constantly reinventing his visual vocabulary.
The 20 “distinct yet unified works,” as Richard Powell describes them, comprising the Odysseus collages, some large-scale and others intimate, bear titles like “Cattle of the Sun,” “Home to Ithaca,” “Odysseus Leaves,” “Poseidon,” “The Sea Nymph,” “Siren’s Song,” and “Troy Burning.” Stark yet vibrantly saturated with color, sinuously geometric, they sing a Trojan War hero’s roots, his departure, his wanderings, his shipwreck, his temptations and, finally, his homecoming. The Odysseus Series illustrates the conquest of the Mediterranean by successive waves of African, European and Semitic peoples, the great migrations, the trade routes and civilizations. The collages are possessed of both timelessness and dignity, convey both action and repose. Even as a young writer in 1977, I knew it when I first saw Circe; knew, as August Wilson knew when he said the same year that, in Bearden, he’d found an artistic mentor, and aspired to write plays the equal of Bearden’s images, just as Bearden himself knew he aspired to make images emulating the rhythms he heard between the notes of Earl (“Fatha”) Hines’ piano. I aspired to write something, but had no more idea what to write than Romie, in the very early 1940s, knew whom to paint. I only knew I wanted to make writings that combine precise amplitudes, simple sonorities, and vivid clarities the way Bearden’s Odysseus collages do.
For Romie’s friend Ida, New York energy had been electrifying in the 1930s. By the time I moved there in 1985, she was tired of the place: tired of outrageous supermarket prices; tired of cultural events; tired of her part-time housekeeper’s foolish chatter. She was tired of Life. She loved Romie and all her other friends, but they were dying off, like Owen Dodson. 85 years old, Ida Cullen-Cooper had cultural capital but low energy. 24 years young, I had high energy but no capital. In her shrewdly intuitive way, she saw my ambition for what it was: incorrigible; unagented. Her arthritis smelled like liniment. Ida Cullen-Cooper needed a fresh set of eyes and legs to help with all the unglamorous and never-ending chores entailed in tending a literary estate—copyrights, correspondence, reprints, theatrical productions, the preservation, orderly disposition and archiving of cultural artifacts and scholarly materials with various institutional collections. For almost a year between June 1985 and May 1986, we forged a tenuous alliance.
With no ceremony or basic training and only the briefest of orientations, I was put to work. One of my innumerable duties was sorting and opening mail.
An annuity statement grabbed her attention.
“Don’t open that!”
She swiped it from my hand.
“Matter of fact, I want you to set up a meeting with Rob Bone. Trusts & Estates attorney, don’t you know. Have him draw up a codicil. Gonna leave you something in my will.”
Ida Cullen-Cooper was in pain. I fetched a nitroglycerine tablet.
Palms upturned, she shooed me out the door.
“Next time you come, bring me a little groceries. From Gristedes.”
I left Kips Bay, headed home to Harlem, and never saw Ida Mae again.
The trust attorney handed me two things on May 6, 1986: a check worth one year’s rent on a studio down the Lower East Side; and a copy of the New York Times.
“Ida Cullen Cooper, who spent years traveling the country to keep alive the work of her late husband, the poet Countee Cullen, died of a heart attack Saturday at her home on the East Side of Manhattan. She was 86 years old. She also was active in the civic life of her neighborhood and the cultural life of Harlem, where a branch of the New York Public Library, at 104 West 136th Street near Lenox Avenue, bears the poet’s name. Mr. Cullen, who died in 1946 at the age of 42, was an important writer of the Harlem Renaissance in the 20’s. Mrs. Cooper, a native of Tulsa, Okla., was married to the poet in 1940. In 1953, Mrs. Cooper married Robert L. Cooper, who was widely known for his work with troubled youths. Mr. Cooper died in 1966. Survivors include a daughter, Norma Nimmons; a brother, Harry D. Roberson; a sister, Alice Mae Woods; a granddaughter, and a great-grandson.”
Without doubt, he’d still be remembered today, even without her intervention, but it’s safer to say Ida Mae Roberson’s obituary wouldn’t have been news fit to print in the paper of record if not for her marriage to Countée Cullen. Regardless, I owe my very existence to her as a matter of biological fact. And I can’t imagine sustaining a literary life grounded in reality without the example of their life together. We remain—Countée, Ida Cullen-Cooper and I, in some cases by blood, in other cases by marriage but in any case by shared history and tradition—a family, inseparable. “These,” Zora said, “are my people.” At the peak of his poetic powers, Countée’d won more prizes at a younger age than any other writer of the Harlem Renaissance, and seemed to embody what Gerald Early called “many of the hopes, aspirations, and maturing expressive possibilities of his people”—all 10,000,000 of them. He was the movement’s poster boy. It was no long-shot I would end up writing about him.
Ellison delivered Romare Bearden’s eulogy in April 1988 to the hundreds gathered at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. More than a quarter-century after his death from bone cancer, Bearden’s art still convincingly transmutes “the idiomatic particulars of Afro-American experience” into what Albert Murray calls “aesthetic statements of universal relevance and appeal,” and so it comes as no surprise his “hugely resonant” themes should be reflected both in the writers who influenced him and the writers he influenced. Romare Bearden is an artist writers will never stop writing about.
In An American Odyssey, Schmidt-Campbell notes that Bearden created a breathtaking range of powerful female figures: “matriarchs; Conjur Women; religious icons of mother and child; the Virgin Mary with annunciate angel; women engaging in the everyday routine rituals of their lives; sensuous nudes, lounging and bathing; young women with older women; women with men or alone.” I thought I’d found my subject when, as a biographical portraitist born 14 years after Countée Cullen died, Bearden became the subject of the very first book I wrote 14 years after the shock of encountering “Circe.” But my true subject turned out to be a group portrait with Ida Mommy’s oral history narratives at its center and myself, as participant-observer, hovering about the periphery. John Edgar Wideman writes that Bearden’s collages remind you of the way women who helped raise you talked. “Her stories flatten and fatten perspective. She crams everything, everyone, everywhere into the present, into words intimate and immediate as the images of a Bearden painting. When she’s going good [she] manages to crowd lots and lots of stuff into a space that doesn’t feel claustrophobic. She fills space to the brim without exhausting it.” The grain of Ida’s voice, to borrow Eudora Welty’s phrase, contributed immeasurably to my own “sensory education.” Preserving the folklore and traditions of the Harlem Renaissance was essential to the woman Ida Cullen-Cooper became, just as preserving those of the Deep South was for Zora. She was every bit as ambitious as Countée, as controlling as Walter White, as indefatigable as Alain Locke, as intelligent as Dorothy West, as shrewd as Charles S. Johnson, and had as acute a sense of historical mission as Arna. Oral history wasn’t merely a component of Ida Cullen-Cooper’s character; Ida Cullen-Cooper was the living portrait of an oral historian. “Orality,” my “showing” of her “telling,” had to play as much a part in the narrative as her stories themselves.
The movement we know as the Harlem Renaissance was, like all communities, a factious social network with its natural fair share of back-biting, bickering, envy, grudges, long-cherished hatreds, infighting, paranoia, resentments and suspicion, reasonable and otherwise. “Characters” there was no need to invent: a fast-talking, night-clubbing, blond-haired, blue-eyed black man called Walter White; a writer, late resident, after an adventurous life lived collecting folk songs, voodoo spells and folk dances, of the Garden of Heavenly Rest, buried open casket, in a pink nightgown and fuzzy slippers. There was a scene-stealing cast of dozens, some authors of memoirs of their own, others subjects of multi-tome biographies themselves. There were operatic plots, scenes and situations so melodramatic to begin with that it would be tacky to embellish them. But what did “Circe” and the Odysseus collages, what did the art of a storyteller like Bearden have to teach an aspiring portraitist? How, in a hybrid of portraiture and self-portraiture combining poetry and fact, humor and pathos, exposition and anecdote such as the New Journalists were creating when I started publishing around 1977, how in a character-driven narrative taught as a novella yet reliable as a fact-checked, long-form investigative piece, how to tell a within the traditional coming-of-age framework the story of one writer’s quest for a personal version of a “useable past,” how tell the story of a young writer learning to become a storyteller? What were the secrets of narrative propulsion, of maximizing human interest, of reproducing life upon the page? What, exactly, was the secret of those “right relations” among narrative elements in transition—character; description; dialogue; plot; point of view; scenes; storylines; and tone—Turgenev speaks of? How to tell a good story well? How had Bearden done it? The raw material lay all about me. All I had to do was connect the dots.
Failure and doubt flesh out a character as much as aspirations and achievements do. To do him justice, I needed to know what Bearden was like not as a monument but as a man. But in my mind as on my great-grandmother’s wall in Kip’s Bay, Bearden’s work was frozen in time as an historical artifact, not an evolutionary process. Until I became a working writer myself, until the challenges of sustaining creativity into middle age became real to me, I simply had no way of imagining Romie as a struggling artist, forced to work 9 to 5 and paint from 6 to 9, averaging at best a couple hours concentrated work on any given weekday. Ida Cullen-Cooper told me many things–secrets, lies. She never lived to tell me about the Siren’s Songs, about the hazards and temptations, the red herrings, the time frittered away in well-intentioned but ultimately fruitless gatherings; the stressors and anxieties self-medicated with potentially fatal mixtures of nicotine, prescription medications and alcohol; the rejections; the self-deceptions; the endless hours of research, drafting, revision and marketing on projects that ultimately go nowhere; the manuscripts irretrievably lost—all the jottings in the margins of a life as opposed to official biography. She never told me the only certainty to be counted on is interruption, whether temporary in the form of familial, financial or social obligations, or permanent in the form of death.
I didn’t inherit “Circe.” Ida Cullen-Cooper was far too savvy to entrust a work of art like that to a 25-year-old scraping by. Perhaps the spell Circe still casts is my great-grandmother’s influence; perhaps it’s the subjectivity, selectivity and distortions of memory—mine, hers, others’—and memory’s role in shaping our identity. Whatever the case, Circe’s image proved to be precisely the right catalyst at that particular juncture of time, place or readiness. The money was only an honorarium. My great-grandmother’s real endowment was this trove of material.
KEVIN BROWN is author of Malcolm X: His Life & Legacy as well as Romare Bearden: Artist. He was also a contributing editor to the New York Public Library African-American Desk Reference. His articles, essay-reviews, interviews and translations have appeared in American Book Review, The Brooklyn Rail, Fiction International, The Georgia Review, The Nation, The Threepenny Review, Times Literary Supplement, Washington Post Bookworld, among others.