Ernest J. Gaines | The Artist and the Heart Surgeon

Ernest Gaines, San Francisco, California, March 13, 1975. Photograph from Black Writers. Photograph Credit: Jill Krementz. Postcard from my collection.

Without love for my fellow man and respect for nature, to me, life is an obscenity. –Ernest Gaines (January 15, 1933 – November 5, 2019)

I had a different blog post planned for today. but then I learned Ernest J. Gaines, my favorite Louisiana author, passed away today.

I’m pretty sure that Gaines was the first African American writer with whom I came in contact–through one of his earliest works, Miss Jane Pittman.  Much later, as a young professor, I began to include his A Lesson Before Dying on the reading list for my composition courses. After reading A Gathering of Old Men, my hubby was hooked. Gaines became his favorite author.

I don’t normally swoon when I meet “celebrities,” but I gushed when I met him at the Short Story Conference in New Orleans some years later–he was personable, wise, humble. I squealed when one of my colleagues gave me an autographed portrait of Gaines for my birthday one year.

I’m saddened over the loss of another elder, another critical voice in the American literary scene, but I am grateful for his life and works, his bringing to the fore the complications of personhood, race, life, and love in rural Louisiana.

Yesterday, I shared some brilliant first lines, but today I’m sharing literary wisdom from some of Gaines’ works:

Ain’t we all been hurt by slavery?  —The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman

I think it’s God that makes people care for people, Jefferson. I think it’s God makes children play and people sing. I believe it’s God that brings loved ones together. I believe it’s God that makes trees bud and food grow out of the earth.  —A Lesson Before Dying

How do people come up with a date and a time to take life from another man? Who made them God?  —A Lesson Before Dying

Sometimes you got to hurt something to help something. Sometimes you have to plow under one thing in order for something else to grow.  —A Gathering of Old Men

The artist must be like a heart surgeon. He must approach something with sympathy, but with a sort of coldness and work and work until he finds some kind of perfection in his work. You can’t have blood splashing all over the place. Things must be done very cleanly.  —Conversations with Ernest J. Gaines

If you haven’t read any of his fiction before, I encourage you to add Gaines to your reading list. Click here for a list and overview of his novels: Gaines’ novels.

To hear Gaines talk about books, writing, and his own story, be sure to watch “Conversation with Ernest J. Gaines” produced by the National Endowment for the Arts:

Rest in Peace, Dr. Gaines.

Lessons in Art and Piano

Pure exhaustion made me miss my “Focus on Black” post last Friday, so I’m posting this morning to avoid the same mistake this week.

Today, I’m using children’s art to “introduce” African American artist Romare Bearden.  Even though Bearden is far from an “unknown” artist, few people know who I’m talking about when I reference his work:

Considered one of the most important American artists of the 20th century, Romare Bearden’s artwork depicted the African-American culture and experience in creative and thought provoking ways. Born in North Carolina in 1912, Bearden spent much of his career in New York City. Virtually self-taught, his early works were realistic images, often with religious themes. He later transitioned to abstract and Cubist style paintings in oil and watercolor. He is best known for his photomontage compositions made from torn images of popular magazines and assembled into visually powerful statements on African-American life.  -from Biography.com

Last year, my favorite (now retired) second grade teacher, Mrs. Crarey, introduced her students to Bearden’s work. They studied his art, noted his interest in jazz music–which influenced some of his art–learned about his collage technique and then created their own Bearden-esque masterpieces. [Click an image for a closer look]

The children used rulers, pencils, Sharpies, crayons, and markers to imitate Bearden’s collage style. As you can see, they used piano keys patterns for their borders.

I pretty much love everything Bearden created.  The Piano Lesson: Homage to Mary Lou is my favorite, probably because it was the masterpiece that inspired African American playwright August Wilson’s The Piano Lesson, one of my favorite plays.

The piece was inspired by jazz pianist Mary Lou Williams who collaborated with Bearden’s wife, Nannette, on a musical and dance composition.  If you are familiar with Henri Matisse’s The Piano Lesson and The Music Lesson, you will see his influence on the work as well.

There are two versions of the work–the original:

Romare Bearden’s  “The Piano Lesson: Homage to Mary Lou” (popularly known as “The Piano Lesson”). Watercolor, acrylic, graphite and printed paper collage on paper.

And a signed lithograph:

Romare Bearden, “The Piano Lesson,” Lithograph

For more about Bearden’s life and influences, click the links below:

The Bearden Foundation’s page features more resources such as a timeline and an impressive collection of Romare Bearden’s artwork.

Until next time…

Sucker Punched by a Postcard

I rarely receive a postcard I don’t like. In fact, I enjoy receiving postcards that share a little about the history of a place.  In spite of my appreciation for history and culture, there are historical and cultural postcards I would not be too excited about receiving–those that valorize racism, sexism, homophobia, and anything that is psychologically or emotionally harmful or that glorify horrific parts of a nation’s past.

I’ll admit it. The sender is one of my favorite postcard pals and I love receiving mail from her, but I raised my eyebrows at the sepia postcard from the “Old West Collectors Series” I received a few days ago–Buffalo Bill Cody.

William F. Cody/Buffalo Bill Cody, 1846-1917

Then, I read the description:

Hunter, scout, indian [sic] fighter; Buffalo Bill romanticized the West in his Wild West Show that toured through the Eastern U.S. and Europe. This photo of the colorful character was taken in El Paso in 1915 by Feldman Studio.

Are you kidding me? Indian fighter?! This postcard felt like a sucker punch. I mentioned this to my hubby–a history buff–and he responded, “That’s not who he really was.”  I’ve paid very little attention to anything having to do with the “wild west,” since most of what I’ve seen in the long ago past of my childhood only perpetuated stereotypes about minorities and women in this country.

But this was worth exploring.  Maybe, I was too hasty.

My search led me to a PBS biography and Corrie N. Cody’s Travel Blog, part of the Buffalo Bill’s Cody/Yellowstone Country’s website for tourists. The post separated the man from the myth and I found that the values of the real life person may have very little to do with the values of the “image” or character.

Here are three of the “Top 10 Things You Don’t Know About Buffalo Bill”:

  1. Known as a fearless Indian fighter, Cody respected — and advocated for the rights of — American Indians and once said, “Every Indian outbreak that I have ever known has resulted from broken promises and broken treaties by the government.”
  2. Cody was an ardent supporter of women’s rights and insisted on equal pay for all members of his traveling shows, regardless of gender. “What we want to do is give women even more liberty than they have,” he said. “Let them do any kind of work they see fit, and if they do it as well as men, give them the same pay.”
  3. Cody’s family was Quaker and opposed slavery. When Cody was a young child, the family moved from Fort Leavenworth, Kansas Territory, a hotbed of conflict between slavery advocates and abolitionists. While giving an antislavery speech at a local trading post, Cody’s father Isaac was stabbed twice by an angry man in the crowd.

Although I still have some reservations, I’m happy to find that Buffalo Bill is not everything I thought he was. I can find some reasons to appreciate the postcard after all.

You can find out more about Buffalo Bill Cody by following any of the links above.

Have you been duped by television and legend?  Are there some history makers out there you’ve ignored because you thought they were less than positive?  Do tell!

Fierce Woman: “Ride, Sally Ride!”

Some time ago, I coordinated a “Fierce Woman” photo swap.  A fierce woman, for the purpose of the swap, was defined as: a mover and shaker in science, music, politics, history, art, dance, theatre, literature, activism (etc.) who inspires other women to strive for excellence.  Participants had to find a quote by a fierce woman and capture (or choose from their collection) a complementary photo.  Tynkerbelle aka Zoey aka Peppie, shared a shot from a launch at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.  She appropriately paired the photo with a quote by Dr. Sally Ride (1951-2012) who was the first American woman in space (1983).

Sally Ride by Tynkerbelle aka Zoey Rayne aka Peppie Selders

“All Adventures…” by Tynkerbelle aka Zoey Rayne aka Peppie Selders

Being a “wordsy” type of woman with a son who is both “wordsy” and “sciencey,” I have to keep up with space, astronauts, and a lot of other science stuff that usually holds my attention for only a few minutes at a time.  I enjoyed being able to share Zoey’s photo with him and teaching him about Dr. Ride, but I learned a little something myself.  While I knew Dr. Ride was a physicist and (of course) an astronaut, I did not realize that she also had an undergraduate degree in English.  Of course, that did my English professor heart a world of good! I tell students all the time that a degree in English can place them on the path to any career they desire.  Dr. Sally Ride is evidence–with a degree in English, one can soar!

All adventures, especially into new territory, are scary.

I keep the photo inspiration on my desk as a reminder that it is natural to be afraid when I venture into new territory, but I shouldn’t allow fear to keep me from moving in the direction of my dreams.

What’s your favorite “fierce woman” quote? Share it in the comments, and maybe, I’ll make some photo inspiration with “your” quote.