“The Block” is Hot and Romare Bearden
“Art is the soul of a people.” — Romare Bearden
I was working late one evening in my office when my suite mate Peter popped his blond head through my door and said, “I’ve got something to show you.” Peter was always ready to spill the tea about the latest shenanigans going on in his not-for-profit. We both worked on K Street in Washington, DC, for organizations that looked good on a resume but were hot messes behind the scenes. In both organizations, an ego-manic was at the helm and young, underpaid and overworked staffers were always putting out their fires.
I shut off my computer and followed Peter into his office suite and then to the mailroom. He hurriedly unwrapped two very large items that were encased in brown paper and bubble wrap. He revealed two mounted panels that were reproductions of Romare Bearden’s mural collage, “The Block.” Each panel contained three sections of the Bearden masterpiece.
Peter said, “Pick the one you want and I’ll take the other.” I immediately made my choice and quickly rewrapped it. Peter smiled wickedly and said, “They wouldn’t appreciate these anyway.” That evening I schlepped my panel of “The Block” home on the Metro. Peter and I never discussed our art heist.
The mural size collage, “The Block” is Bearden’s largest and arguably his most important work of art. The six-panel mural is a visual love letter to Harlem, specifically Lenox Avenue between 132nd and 133rd Streets. He made this work in 1971 for his first major retrospective exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. What started out as a literal interpretation of the block based on his black and white photographs morphed into a melodic mix of fact and fiction.
Local establishments provide the backdrop for the mural—churches, a barbershop, stores, a small apartment building and even a funeral parlour that’s shown with Medieval angels. Then there are the neighborhood folks—children playing, a homeless man sleeping on the ground, teenagers hanging out and senior citizens mingling.
Bearden using windows and cut-aways in the walls that he called, “look-ins” allows the viewer to see what’s going on behind closed doors. What we see is a couple making love, someone watching television, and kids living with mousetraps, a code for subpar housing.
“The Block” is so resonant because it reflects the everyday life of many Black Americans who reside in cities, particularly on the East Coast. The use of color, placements and proportions is poetic but not in a saccharine way. The work unsparingly juxtaposes the vitality and the ravages of urban life.
[I]tis not my aim to paint about the Negro in America in terms of propaganda. It is precisely my awareness of the distortions required of the polemicist that has caused me to paint the life of my people as I know it-as passionately and dispassionately as Brueghel painted the life of the Flemish people of his day. -Romare Bearden from “Rectangular Structure in My Montage Paintings,” (1969)
To be honest, I don’t know when I fell in love with Romare Bearden’s work. As a kid, I spent a lot of time at the Brooklyn Museum so it’s very likely that’s where my connection began.
When I look at his collages, I see people, places, and scenes that I easily recognize. I’m always intrigued about the layers of Bearden’s work. There’s the stunning surface and then there’s the embedded cultural messages that are shared through African symbols and recurring themes like the conjure woman, trains, and birds.
If I had the chance to spend the day with any artist, dead or alive, it would be Romare Bearden. Bearden was a renaissance man. In an era when Blackness was narrowly defined, Bearden moved between artistic forms and worlds; his collages reflected his fluidity.
As a young man Bearden had aspirations to become a doctor. However in college he chucked medicine once he started drawing cartoons. While in college Bearden also proved to be a talented baseball player. He was always painting but for decades he made his living as a social worker. If all of that wasn’t enough, Bearden co-wrote the hit jingle, “Sebreeze,” sang by Bill Eckstine with Dizzy Gillespsie on trumpet. Bearden also hobnobbed with Henri Matisse in Paris. He was a spiritual man, an avid reader, a philosopher of sorts, a jazz lover and a student of European art. His life was reflected in his collages.
Bearden created richly textured collages that represented the various ideas and identities of Black Americans.
The concept of “Blackness” is tricky. It was a legal construct crafted to keep white supremacy and slavery alive. Blackness therefore was never intended to mirror the wide range of our experiences as actual people. The fact is, Blackness was codified to negate the humanity of people of African descent.
For all of the beauty and the life affirming aspects of our collective Blackness, by historical design there remain constraints that determine who and what is “Black.” Consequently, failing the Black litmus test can result in you being disinvited from the Black family cook-out.
Right now, there are Black folks arguing about whether Vice-President elect Kamala Harris, a graduate of Howard University, a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc. (AKA) with a Jamaican father and an East Indian mother is really Black, despite her own identification as a Black woman.
Closer to home, I’m a Black American born in New York City with footholds in the South and in the Caribbean. My paternal grandfather also lived in Cuba for several years and spoke fluent Spanish. Mine isn’t an uncommon mashup, but it does muddy the accepted Black American narrative.
Bearden became an internationally known artist by telling the stories of Blacks in the United States and for advocating for artists.
He participated in The Spiral Group during the Civil Rights Movement and opened the Cinque Galley with Norman Lewis after the highly controversial “Harlem On My Mind” exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1969, however I’m sure that he’d bristle at being called a “Black artist.” In a 1979 interview with Inside New York’s Art World, he said that he was “[F]orging a synthesis between Harlem and Haarlem.”
Bearden definitely didn’t run away from being a Black American but he wanted to free “Black art” from its parochial context. According to Bearden, the Black experience articulated the human experience so our art is universal.
I believe that Bearden’s perspective on Blackness resulted in no small part from his movement between different worlds throughout his life: North and South; Privileged and Trying to Make It; Black and White. American and European.
Bearden’s construction of Blackness wasn’t based on a single Black American story; rather it was a collaboration of his multiple heritages.
Although Bearden was born in Charlotte, North Carolina, in 1911, he spent his formative years in Harlem, New York. His mother, a prominent journalist and activist regularly entertained the leading figures of the Harlem Renaissance including, W.E.B DuBois, poet, Langston Hughes and musician, Duke Ellington. Then during the summer he bounced between his great grandparents’ home in Charlotte and his grandparents’ house in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
In Charlotte he saw the cotton fields and the devout church folk who had no qualms about visiting a root worker to get problems handled. In Pittsburgh, he saw sweaty and depleted migrant workers coming from the steel mills to his grandparents rooming house.
Bearden was also a light-skinned Black man who was frequently mistaken for White. As a young man he received an offer to play professional baseball if he was willing to pass as White. Bearden declined but for me it begs the question:
How did “looking and sounding White” allow Bearden to navigate and understand the world differently than darker complexioned Black Americans?
After serving in a segregated unit in the Second World War, Bearden, like many Black Americans before him, went to Paris to escape the dehumanizing impacts of racism. He used the G.I. Bill to study at the Sorbonne. In Paris, he befriended cultural critic, Albert Murray. In 1970, during the height of the Black Power, Movement Murray caused a maelstrom with his book, The Omni-Americans: Some Alternatives To The Folklore of White Supremacy. Murray says,
“The United States is in actuality not a nation of black people or white people. It is a nation of multi-colored people…Any fool can see that the white people aren’t really white and that black people are not black.” He contends that American culture is a “composite that is part Yankee, part backwoodsman, and Indian, and part Negro.”
Following Murray’s logic: Americans are racial and cultural mongrels, so it’s impossible to create a distinct “Black art.”
Bearden may not have agreed 100% with Murray, but the two remained close friends and collaborators in New York City. It was from Murray’s apartment in the Lenox Terrace Apartments that Bearden shot the initial photos for “The Block.”
The idea that art by artists of African descent is universal remains current. In a November, 2020 interview on the podcast Cerebral Women, legendary private art dealer Peg Alston said, “[I] never call it Black art. It’s art by artists who happen to be Black or happen to be African American. The art is universal.”
Alston came onto the New York art scene in 1972 and was mentored by Romare Bearden. During her career she’s worked with leading artists such as Jacob Lawrence, Norman Lewis, Frank Bolling and Faith Ringgold.
I don’t disagree that there always have been and continue to be Black American artists and artists of African descent who’ve created master level work. I also co-sign the notion that art created by people of African descent has the capacity to reach beyond racial lines and national borders to move people’s souls.
What I find faulty is the practical application of universality when it comes to art by people of African descent.
For me, universality isn’t a Black artist having his or her excellent work bought by a White art collector in London or Paris.
I simply don’t see how art by Black Americans or people of African descent can be universal as long as the artist and the group(s) they emerge from as still perceived as “the other.” It’s incongruent since the perceived value of the art can’t be decoupled from the perceived value of the person creating it.
Riddle me this: Does the average White person look at “The Block” and see themselves or their immigrant parents or grandparents in it?
I have traveled throughout the U.S. and I have encountered the Irish, the Polish and the Italian versions of “The Block.” However, it’s extremely doubtful that these people see an immediate link between Bearden’s hood and their own hoods. That shared recognition is the linchpin of universality.
In my judgment, two-time Pulitzer Prize winning playwright August Wilson has come closest to creating art that is universal. Wilson’s 10 play cycle corresponds to each decade in the 20th century. Six of Wilson’s plays have been produced on Broadway.
Wilson’s plays are firmly centered on Black Americans in Pittsburgh, and are intermixed with jazz, the blues, Black colloquialisms and spirituality. However, White and Black theatergoers viscerally respond to Wilson’s stories and characters.
Wilson is frequently mentioned alongside William Shakespeare and is considered an exemplary American playwright who skillfully chronicled the challenges of the human journey. Wilson, however, believed that Black culture was related to but distinct from the larger American culture because of the racial oppression Black Americans experienced in the U.S. He wrote about Black struggles and Black joy; if other folks liked it, cool. Wilson aspired to be a great writer like Richard Wright, not Arthur Miller.
Who’s right: Bearden or Wilson? Actually, they both are. There’s not one, correct way to be Black, to think Black or to create Black.
In terms of visual art, there’s been progress but we ain’t there yet with universality.
Unfortunately, in 2020 I have encountered too many art school graduates, art lovers and regular folks who have never heard of Romare Bearden, Henry Ossawa Tanner, William H. Johnson, Elizabeth Catlett, Bettye Saar, etc.
Moreover, the international art world is still largely comprised of privileged White people. The lack of diversity and representation is a real obstacle to art by people of African descent being moved from the margins to the center of our cultural awareness.
For now, I will continue to use the term “Black art” to discuss work by Black American artists and artists of African descent because I don’t believe that it limits them or their works. As far as I’m concerned, if we can have “European art” and, for that matter “Asian art,” then “Black art” shouldn’t be an issue.
To quote the late rap artist, entrepreneur and activist, Nipsey Hussle: “The marathon continues.”
You can find links to Bearden’s work in the BAIA collection here.
Schuyler Price is an art lover, writer and the curator of the @SheLovesBlackart on Instagram
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