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Over sixteen years ago, I made one of those haphazard, following one’s desires versus common sense, maneuvers. I walked away from the world of full-time employment, full-benefits, great office, etc and wandered with rose-colored glasses into a world of mostly self-employment, cobbling together different gigs, and sometimes having no benefits at all, done so that I could indulge in the world of creativity. I’d grown up in a family of storytellers and for a variety of reasons I reached a point in my life where I wanted to spend time writing. I thought I would write a great fantasy masterpiece but what flowed most naturally were stories of the people around me, and occasionally, stories about myself. This was long before I picked up a camera but I have always been visual and so I wielded the pen like a paintbrush, sketching the world around me. I had no idea what I was doing and so every little bit of encouragement was pivotal in keeping me from giving up. As I began to submit my work, one of the first magazines to accept a short piece was the New York-based magazine African Voices. The editors were so encouraging and so supportive, and as I watched videos on its current GoFundMe page, I hear writers and artists expressing that same sentiment today. As Giving Tuesday approaches, please consider giving to an organization like African Voices. You don’t have to wait until tomorrow morning. As you can see on the GoFundMe page, every little bit helps. And meanwhile … it’s dusty … could use some revision perhaps … but here is a variation of what I wrote so long ago …

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my parents in the 1950s

Wait Until Morning

She sits on the edge of the bed, gazing into a large bureau mirror.  She smokes a Pall Mall or perhaps a Winston Salem.  She’s not sure.  She can’t remember if she pulled the cigarette from her purse or his coat pocket.  She can usually taste the difference but not tonight. In her mind’s eye, she sees her youngest son frowning and wrinkling his nose at the smoke.  She shakes her head at his face, then sighs as the image fades to be replaced by the items on the bureau top.  Pictures mostly and pill bottles and knick knacks from her children.  Most of the pictures and their frames are fuzzy with dust.  She is too tired to clean proper.  Only one picture shines clear in the dim light of the lamp – her  mother.

The woman looks at the picture and then at herself in the mirror.  She glances quickly away – she never liked her face – but the image remains.  Hair gray like her mother’s now, wide-rimmed glasses, skin weathered and dry no matter how much lotion she rubs on.  The bed is also reflected.  She stares at the crisp clean covers.  For the first time in 40 years, only on one side are they folded back.  She squeezes her eyes shut and clutches her stomach.  He is gone.

He bought her the scanner that sits near the bed. Fifteen years ago?  Maybe more. She saw it on “Let’s Make a Deal.”  She wanted one and he bought it for her birthday.  He always did his best to get her what she wanted.  A female police dispatcher’s voice barks from the scanner.  Somewhere downtown a tall black male is being chased by the police.  Her stomach knots and the breath catches in her thin chest.  All her sons are tall black males.  She breaths again as she remembers that her sons are at work or with their girlfriends.

Wind blows and the old house creaks.  A draft kisses her bare ankles.  “A small wood frame house” was how the reporter from the local paper described the house in his article about her daughter, on her way to college, the first one.  Her stomach clenches again at the thought of her daughter so many miles away, unreachable if she gets into trouble.

She sighs and puffs more deeply on the cigarette.  The house creaks again, and she smiles.  A junk heap, yes it was.  Their junk heap for 45 years.  Raised four children in it.  Would’ve been five if times had been better.  Two girls instead of the one.

More creaking.  She thinks of grabbing the iron poker by her chair in the living room.  The poker went with the coal stove they had in the 1950’s.  Back then, it was only used to nudge glowing coals.  Now … the neighborhood’s getting bad.  But, as she always told her children, a person might get in, but he sure wouldn’t leave in the same condition.  Hands clench at that thought, hands that have wrung chicken necks on the farm, picked tobacco, cradled babies and caressed the skin of just one man.

She glances at the phone and then the digital clock on the bureau.  Twelve hours until the hospital allows phone calls.  Then she can hear his voice.  Patient, calming, distracted if the TV is on.  She rises briefly from the bed, unaware of the hollow that she’s worn into the mattress over the years.  She turns down the light to a warm glow and then puts out the cigarette.  Sliding into bed, she draws the covers up to her chin and closes her eyes to wait for morning.

###

 

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There’s one positive to the long winter/long early spring commutes in Boston when your primary form of transportation is the train and bus. Plenty of time to read. Two books have been in my bag of late that I’d like share in some fashion. Very different books, indeed, but there is a common thread of poetry and the poetic. First up, Army Life in a Black Regiment, first published in 1869.

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In November 1861, shortly after the start of the U.S. Civil War, the Union fleet took command of Port Royal, South Carolina and neighboring sea islands including St. Helena and Hilton Head. Plantation owners fled leaving behind 10,000 slaves, and a bumper crop of sea island cotton.

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A project was conceived known as the Port Royal Experiment. Its purpose? By working with this group of 10,000 freed slaves, in a relatively contained area, perhaps solutions could be found for the greater looming challenge of how to integrate into society millions of emancipated slaves.

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At least three different groups were involved in the experiment, including Northern missionaries who focused on education and training, entrepreneurs who wanted to show the profitability of free labor versus slave labor, and the U.S. government which, most immediately, needed more men on the battlefield. These groups sometimes worked together but were more often at odds. For an excellent scholarly analysis of the Port Royal Experiment, please read Willie Lee Rose’s Rehearsal for Reconstruction: The Port Royal Experiment.

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port royal students

Teachers immediately went to work setting up schools. Entrepreneurs began implementing their free labor experiment offering to pay the former slaves to cultivate the cotton.  But as for volunteering to fight for the military?

 

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escaped slaves wearing old union uniforms

Since the beginning of the war, Union officers in the field saw the need for trained black troops. Early attempts to recruit  had met with poor results and had little initial support from Lincoln’s White House. But finally, with Port Royal, a new more coordinated effort was to be made.  In November 1862, Thomas Wentworth Higginson received a letter from Brigadier General Rufus Saxton. “I am organizing the First Regiment of South Carolina Volunteers, with every prospect of success. Your name has been spoken of, in connection with the command of this regiment, by some friends in whose judgement I have confidence. I take great pleasure in offering you the position of Colonel in it … I shall not fill the place until I hear from you …”

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Thomas Wentworth Higginson

Higginson was a poet, biographer and novelist as well as a Unitarian minister. From a prominent, wealthy New England family, he had long been a staunch abolitionist, social reformer and a major supporter of John Brown. Once the Civil War began, he joined the Union Army. Though he already served another regiment, he accepted Saxton’s invitation to visit Port Royal. He doubted he would accept the commission but, after meeting the people, he accepted his new role without hesitation.

During his time with the regiment he would record detailed entries in his diary about the people, the Sea Island landscape, and of course about the regiments military actions. After becoming ill, in 1864, he would return to New England, resign his commission, and resume researching and writing. Essays about his wartime experiences with the First Regiment appeared infrequently in the Atlantic. By 1869, he compiled the essays, diary excerpts and other work into the book, Army Life in a Black Regiment and Other Writings.

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First South Carolina Volunteer Infantry

In the introduction to his diary entries, Higginson tells the reader:

I am under pretty heavy bonds to tell the truth, and only the truth; for those who look back to the newspaper correspondence of that period will see that this particular regiment lived for months in the glare of publicity, such as tests any regiment severely, and certainly prevents all subsequent romancing in its historian. As the scene of the only effort on the Atlantic coast to arm the negro, our camp attracted a continuous stream of visitors, military and civil. A battalion of black soldiers, a spectacle since so common, seemed then the most daring of innovations, and the whole demeanor of the particular regiment was watched with microscopic scrutiny by friends and foes. I felt sometimes as if we were a plant trying to take root, but constantly pulled up to see if we were growing.”

Of discipline there was great need … Some of the men had already been under fire but they were very ignorant of drill and camp duty. The officers, being appointed from a dozen different States … had all that diversity of methods which so confused our army in those early days. The first need, therefore, was an unbroken interval of training. During this period, which fortunately lasted nearly two months, I rarely left camp … Camp life was a wonderfully strange sensation to almost all volunteer officers, and mine lay among eight hundred men suddenly transformed from slaves into soldiers …

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Infantry Members

Each subsequent diary entry reveals Higginson’s poetic nature. “Yesterday afternoon we were steaming over a summer sea, the deck level as a parlor-floor, no land in sight, no sail, until at last appeared one light-house … The sun set, a great illuminated bubble, submerged in one vast bank of rosy suffusion; it grew dark; after tea all were on deck, the people sang hymns; then the moon set, a moon two days old, a curved pencil of light, reclining backwards on a radiant couch which seemed to rise from the waves to receive it…”(November 24, 1862)

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Dress Parade of the First South Carolina Volunteer Infantry

“… One adapts one’s self so readily to new surroundings that already the full zest of the novelty seems passing away from my perceptions, and I write these lines in an eager effort to retain all I can. Already I am growing used to the experience, at first so novel, of living among five hundred men, and scarce a white face to be seen, — of seeing them go through all their daily processes, eating, frolicking, talking, just as if they were white. Each day at dress-parade I stand with the customary folding of the arms before a regimental line of countenances so black that I can hardly tell whether the men stand steadily or not; black is every hand which moves in ready cadence as I vociferate, “Battalion! Shoulder arms!” nor is it till the line of white officers move forward, as parade is dismissed, that I am reminded that my own face is not the color of coal.” (November 27, 1862)

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Infantry Member Henry Williams

Higginson paints a poetic picture of both people and place. “All the excitements of war are quadrupled by darkness; and as I rode along our outer lines at night, and watched the glimmering flames which at regular intervals starred the opposite river-shore, the longing was irresistible to cross the barrier of dusk, and see whether it were men or ghosts who hovered round those dying embers. I had yielded to these impulses in boat-adventures by night … and fascinating indeed it was to glide along, noiselessly paddling, with a dusky guide, the reed-birds, which wailed and fled away into the darkness, and penetrating several miles into the interior, between hostile fires, where discovery might be death.

The book is a time capsule chronicling an important period in American history. These soldiers predated the more famous Massachusetts 54th regiment led by Robert Gould Shaw. Higginson brings to life the courage, the ingenuity and discipline of these early troops.  He shows them to be as human as their white counterparts, their brothers in arms. And though the people of the Sea Islands, for the most part, had known nothing other than slavery, they were prepared with the right training to fight for and defend their freedom and that abstract thing known as “the Union” that their labor had sustained for generations.

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Higginson’s book reminded me of the unique nature of the Sea Islands, a uniqueness that Higginson remarks upon in a post-war essay about the Negro as a Soldier. “I had not allowed for the extreme remoteness and seclusion of their lives, especially among the Sea Island. Many of them had literally spend their whole existence on some lonely island or remote plantation, where the master never came, and the overseer only once or twice a week.”

Under these conditions the slaves developed a patois that is now known as Gullah, a blending of standard English and its Southern regionalisms with different West African languages. By the time the Civil War began, there were over 400,000 slaves in South Carolina alone. Such a large investment in labor was needed for the labor intensive yet highly profitable cultivation of cotton and especially rice.

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During one expedition along the Edisto River with his now-trained troops, Higginson confronts the enemy near some of these rice fields.

“The battery — whether fixed or movable we knew not — met us with a promptness that proved very short-lived. After three shots it was silent, but we could not tell why. The bluff was wooded, and we could see but little. The only course was to land, under cover of the guns. As the firing ceased and the smoke cleared away, I looked across the rice-fields which lay beneath the bluff. The first sunbeams glowed upon their emerald levels, and on the blossoming hedges along the rectangular dikes. What were those black dots which everywhere appeared? Those meadows had become alive with human heads, and along each narrow path came a straggling file of men and women, all on a run for the riverside. I went ashore with a boat-load of troops at once. The landing was difficult and marshy. The astonished negroes tugged us up the bank …They kept arriving by land much faster than we could come by water … What a scene it was! With the wild faces, eager figures, strange garments, it seemed, as one of the poor things reverently suggested, [like judgment day]. “

Bless you” and “Bless the Lord,” were the exclamations Higginson remembers hearing over and over again. “Women brought children on their shoulders; small black boys carried on their backs little brothers … Never had I seen human beings so clad, or rather so unclad … How weak is imagination, how cold is memory, that I ever cease, for a day of my life, to see before me the picture of that astounding scene!” That day they rescued approximately two hundred slaves.

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escaped slaves 1862

 

Higginson, with his Boston Brahmin background, was an outsider looking into another culture. There is condescension on occasion but while he may refer to the former slaves as docile, he makes clear he knew they were not mentally deficient as so many others would report in northern publications. “I cannot conceive what people at the North mean by speaking of the negroes as a bestial or brutal race. … I learned to think that we abolitionists had underrated the suffering produced by slavery among the negroes, but had overrated the demoralization.”

Higginson viewed his troops as human beings who had been denied basic human privileges, privileges he had literally fought for long before the Civil War. Throughout the book he presents the former slaves as active participants in shaping their own destiny.”One half of military duty lies in obedience, the other half in self-respect,” Higginson writes. “A soldier without self-respect is useless.” Recognizing what he describes as the bequest of slavery, Higginson worked with his officers to “impress upon [the troops] they did not obey their officers because they were white, but because they were their officers, just as the Captain must obey me, and I the general; that we were all subject to military law, and protected by it in turn.”

Over time, more black regiments were formed. In 1864 the First South Carolina Volunteer Infantry’s name was changed to the Thirty-Third United States Colored Troops. The men served until February 1866 when the troop was finally mustered out. “It is not my province to write their story, not to vindicate them … Yet this, at least, may be said. The operation on the South Atlantic coast, which long seemed a merely subordinate and incidental part of the great contest, proved to be one of the final pivots on which it turned. All now admit that the fate of the Confederacy was decided by Sherman’s march to the sea. Port Royal was the objective point to which he marched, and he found the Department of the South, when he reached it, held almost exclusively by colored troops. Next to the merit of those who made the march was that of those who held open the door. That service will always remain among the laurels of the black regiments.”

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Thomas Wentworth Higginson

“… we who served with the black troops,” Higgins writes, “have this peculiar satisfaction, that, whatever dignity or sacredness the memories of the war may have to others, they have more to us. … We had touched upon the pivot of the war. Whether this vast and dusky mass should prove the weakness of the nation or its strength, must depend in great measure, we knew, upon our efforts. Till the blacks were armed, there was no guaranty of their freedom. It was their demeanor under arms that shamed the nation into recognizing them as men.”

 

Sources and Additional Reading

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1st_South_Carolina_Volunteers

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thomas_Wentworth_Higginson

Army Life of a Black Regiment

Army Life in a Black Regiment (Amazon)

http://www.bostonathenaeum.org/library/book-recommendations/athenaeum-authors/colonel-thomas-wentworth-higginson

https://www.emilydickinsonmuseum.org/thomas_wentworth_higginson

https://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/11/06/rehearsal-for-reconstruction/

https://www.lowcountryafricana.com/project/history-of-the-33rd-united-states-colored-troops-usct/

http://www.drbronsontours.com/bronsonportroyalexperiment.html

https://www.sciway.net/afam/slavery/population.html

Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library. (1862).Bombardment of Port Royal, S.C. Retrieved from http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47e0-f9a8-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99

The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Photography Collection, The New York Public Library. (1861 – 1865).Two views. Dress parade of the First South Carolina Regiment (Colored), near Beaufort, S.C. Retrieved from http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47e0-c8e9-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99

Please note that the Library of Congress has an extensive collection of photographs available online from this period in U.S. history.

 

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Burial places they certainly are, but across time, cemeteries have also served other functions within our communities — as gathering places for celebration, as gardens of serenity for reflection, as time capsules that help us remember and document the past. In the first of two posts, friend and guest contributor Donna Stenwall shares memories of her visits to cemeteries around the world, respecting their universal solemnity while experiencing the unique attributes of each place.

Detail from Oscar Wilde Tomb, Pere Lachaise Cemetery

It seems strange to say this, but cemeteries have always played a role in my life. The small New England town I grew up in is where it all began. One of my earliest memories is walking by the old cemetery on my way to the library. It was locked every day with the exception of July 4th. That’s when we were able to enter and roam the aisles of the chipped and weathered headstones of the residents that founded the town in the 1600’s. With the names and dates barely visible to the naked eye, this is where we were taught the art of stone rubbing.

The “new cemetery” as we called it was the spot to learn how to ride your bike for the first time without training wheels. We would fly up and down the streets of the cemetery enjoying the freedom of 2 wheels, and all the while passing the graves of neighbors that left us too soon.

Since Massachusetts still had Blue Laws at the time (meaning no shopping on Sunday), the place to take your first spin behind the wheel was the parking lot of the newly built mall on Sunday afternoons. There we got accustomed to the feel of the car, practicing forward and reverse and left and right hand turns. But, to practice that three-point turn on a hill that we would be tested on? It was back to the cemetery!

Gates of Pere Lachaise

Gates of Pere Lachaise

When I began to travel, trips to cemeteries were on the itinerary. During my first trip to New Orleans I mentioned to our host that I would like to visit one of the old cemeteries I had heard so much about. The next day we set out to St. Louis Cemetery #3. It was there that I decided I wanted to be buried in a Mausoleum! Breathtakingly beautiful, I thanked our host for such an experience. It wasn’t until later I discovered that his mother was buried in St. Louis Cemetery and that our visit that day had been his first trip back since she had passed many years before.

My first trip to Paris, with its famous cemetery Pere Lachaise, was long overdue and bittersweet. My husband and I had planned a trip to Paris several times but circumstances prevented us from ever getting there.  With a smile and twinkle in his eye he promised that he would take me to Paris on my 50th birthday. Ah, I thought, the City of Lights I will see you soon!

Heartbreakingly, my husband passed away on July 25, 2005 after a brief illness. Two months later, I celebrated my 48th birthday. When my 50th was approaching my dear friend suggested I think about Paris for my birthday. I wasn’t sure I could do it or even wanted to but with the urging of family and friends I made the trip. Paris was worth the wait and every step I took I knew my husband was with me cheering me on!

 

As a huge fan of Oscar Wilde, I knew I had to venture out to Pere Lachaise, the oldest cemetery in the city of Paris, to pay my respects. Not the easiest spot to get to, we hopped on the Metro, then a bus, and finally by foot. As we made our way to the other side of the cemetery we stopped to visit with Edith Piaf, Proust, Chopin, Colette, Sarah Bernhardt and Moliere. I noticed several people taking photos of the graves. I was a bit uncomfortable believing that these legendary souls were gawked at their entire lives and that now they should be allowed the peace they deserved.

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On our way to the exit it dawned on me that Jim Morrison of the Doors was buried here and we should find his grave. My friend humored me but after ½ hour of roaming (we were notoriously bad map readers), she was ready to give up. I told her to stay put and I would take 10 more minutes. If I didn’t find his grave we would head back to the apartment.  As I was rounding the corner, there, right in front of me was Jim Morrison, surrounded by metal barriers and his own security guard. His grave was strewn with gifts of cigarette butts and empty bottles of Jack Daniels left by the pilgrims that made the trek.

Several years have passed since my trip but I was reminded of my trip to Pere Lachaise when I caught a documentary on the cemetery and its residents. One scene shows 2 elderly ladies sitting on a bench, taking a moment after visiting their husband’s graves. One was buried next to Jim Morrison. When the interviewer asks her how she feels about all the activity near her husband’s grave, she just smiles and states “at least I know he never gets lonely.”

Photography by Donna Stenwall.

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Titian, active about 1506; died 1576 Bacchus and Ariadne 1520-3 Oil on canvas, 176.5 x 191 cm Bought, 1826 NG35 http://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/NG35

Bacchus and Ariadne, 1520-3, by Titian

In Titian’s painting of Bacchus and Ariadne, Bacchus, god of wine, emerges with his followers from the landscape. Falling in love with Ariadne, he leaps from his chariot, drawn by two cheetahs. Ariadne had been abandoned on the Greek island of Naxos by Theseus, whose ship is shown in the distance. Initially she is fearful. Eventually Bacchus raises her to heaven and turns her into a constellation, represented by the stars above her head. So the story is told on the website of the UK National Gallery where the painting is now housed. While wonderful to see such a work in a book or on the computer screen, it is a whole other experience to view it in person.

Painter Donald Langosy wrote about such an experience. He was a young poet chasing Ezra Pound around Venice. “But my meeting with Pound was overshadowed, quite unexpectedly, by entering the Frari church one day and finding myself facing Titian’s Assumption. … My encounter with Titian’s painting was an aesthetic epiphany.”

Assumption of the Virgin, by Titian

Assumption of the Virgin, by Titian

From Titian and other Venetian masters, Langosy would begin to understand how artistic technique was the servant of ideas.  He would share their work with his daughter, Zoe. “I learned what it meant when my father pointed to the sky and said, “It’s a Titian blue.”

Diana and Callisto by Titian

Diana and Callisto by Titian

Viewing Titian’s painting in person certainly influenced Langosy’s early work.

Detail from Flora by Langosy

Detail from Flora by Langosy

Pucinello by Langosy

Seeing Titian in later years would become an unexpected opportunity for two artists, father and daughter, to focus on the beauty to be found even during challenging times. In Zoe’s own words:

“Over the years, my father developed multiple sclerosis, and our once-frequent visits to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts or the Gardner Museum became increasingly rare. Shortly before my father lost the ability to walk entirely, he and my mother traveled to London, where I was living at the time. Walking with a cane and with great difficulty, he set out one day with one purpose: to see Titian’s Bacchus and Ariadne at the National Gallery. It was a masterwork that he had never before seen in person and, of all the great works of art in London, it was the one he refused to miss.  While my mother and I wandered through the nearby exhibits, he sat studying that single painting for nearly an hour.”

Detail from Bacchus and Ariadne by Titian

Detail from Bacchus and Ariadne by Titian

“As the years progressed, my father’s MS caused physical discomfort and fatigue that made it increasingly difficult for him to travel even as far as the local art museums we had enjoyed together. Our conversations about art never took place outside the comfort of the studio, living room, or kitchen at my parent’s home in the Boston suburb of Medford. Then, one day, we read in the newspaper about the “Rivals of Renaissance Venice” show at the MFA. That moment created a breakthrough. My father knew this was a show that he could not and would not miss.”

Detail from Venus with a Mirror by Titian, at the MFA 2009 Exhibit

Detail from Venus with a Mirror by Titian, at the MFA 2009 Exhibit

“We chose a time when we knew the museum would be quiet, and, on a hot summer morning, my father, mother, and I traveled into Boston to see the exhibit. Above all, we went to see the Titians. As I pushed my father in his wheelchair, we stopped for a long time at each painting. Sometimes we would quietly look at the art, while other times we would talk about what we saw. For the first time in many years, I was given the gift of being able to walk through a museum with my father again and share with him one of the things that we both love most: art. Visiting the show was highly enriching for all of us.  Since then, my father has found renewed strength to combat the hold that MS had placed on his activities, and he is determined to attempt such outings on a more regular basis.”

Zoe with her father's portrait of Elizabeth

Zoe with her father’s portrait of Elizabeth

Want to learn more?

View Langosy’s The Story of My Art: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6.

View four decades of Langosy’s work at http://www.donald.langosy.net/

See what’s current on Langosy’s Facebook page.

His contact: Zoe Langosy at zlangosy@me.com.

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Richard Lonsdale Brown, Class of 1910

Richard Lonsdale Brown 1910

In January, I posted the story of an African American artist named Richard Lonsdale Brown (1892-1917). Recently I came across new information that inspired me to revisit his life.  Raised in West Virginia, he traveled to New York City where his talent was recognized. He was featured in the New York Times.  As was often the case for young fine artists, supporters hoped he’d continue his artistic studies in Paris. The trip would never take place. Brown died at the age of 26. Few of his watercolor or oil paintings survive today but he may have left an unexpected legacy in the impact he made upon W. E. B. Du Bois.

W. E. B. Du Bois

W. E. B. Du Bois 1868-1963

The two men would meet shortly after Brown graduated from West Virginia Collegiate Institute, earlier known as the West Virginia Colored Institute. There “In connection with his academic studies he took painting as a trade, under the late George Collins of South America, who was quite an artist. In addition to house painting and interior decoration, the boy showed wonderful aptitude for artistic painting, and was encouraged to paint the hills and scenery along the Great Kanawha River near the institution.” (1)

Brown would eventually make his way to New York City where he would share his portfolio with artist George De Forest Brush. Brown would later share in an interview that he remembered walking up and down Fifth Avenue trying to sell his pictures to galleries to pay for food and rent. He was about to give in to despair when …

Mourning her Brave by George de Forest Brush, 1883

Mourning her Brave by George de Forest Brush, 1883

Brown found the artist’s studio and knocked at his door. Brush answered. He listened and then he reviewed the modest portfolio. An internationally renowned artist, Brush recognized the young man’s talent and invited him to study for a summer in Keene, New Hampshire.  Afterward he studied at the American Academy of Design.  Through Brush, Brown’s work would catch the attention of the founders of the newly formed National Association for Colored People (NAACP), including W. E. B. Du Bois and Mary Ovington. He became their protege.

On January 1912, his artwork was exhibited during the first annual meeting of the NAACP, and would be exhibited during future annual meetings as well.  In March, with Ovington’s aid, his work was exhibited in a NYC gallery. The press was spectacular. The turnout was great. Brown’s works were purchased by collectors from around the world.  Later in the year, his artwork would grace at least two covers of The Crisis, the national magazine published by the NAACP.

In 1913, he would turn his attention from painting landscapes to design and decoration as he worked with Du Bois to execute The Star of Egypt.  In 1911, Du Bois had written The Star of Egypt, a historical pageant presenting the history of African Americans over time. Brown would serve as set decorator, along with Lenwood Morris. He would travel with Du Bois as they met with both blacks and whites in an effort to raise funds. An elaborate production involving casts of thousands, it was well-received though struggled with financing. The pageant would be staged in three cities during Brown’s life, New York in 1913, Washington, DC in 1915, and Philadelphia in 1916.

December 1915 Cover by Richard L. Brown

December 1915 Cover by Richard L. Brown

His time in the northeast studying art, his work with W. E. B. Du Bois, the changing landscape of America and a world that was on the brink of war, all of these things were influencing Brown’s artistic aspirations. In a 1913 interview about his art, he tentatively but determinedly brings up the question of race.

A few years later he would confide in Mary Ovington about his changing perspective. She shares in her memoir:

That trip South she refers to would take Richard Brown to his parent’s home in Muskogee, Oklahoma.  The year was 1917.  On his World War I draft registration card, completed in Muskogee in June,  he notes his occupation as artist and his race as African. He died of pneumonia in September of that year.

While it is unclear why Brown returned to his parents, it is clear from subsequent editorials by W. E. B. Du Bois in The Crisis that Brown, like many black artists in that time, was not making a living as an artist. Always a proponent for nurturing art within the black community, Du Bois took pride in showcasing the talent of young artists like Richard Brown. As he refers to Brown in editorials over the next few years it is with an underlying note of frustration if not outright anger at the loss of this young man’s talent from the world. Those feelings are directed at the white community and at the black community for not financially supporting the creativity within its midst.

An obituary for Brown in the January 1918 issue of The Crisis states “he started on a trip to see what beauty he might find in the South. … Some of us, perhaps all of us, are to blame that Richard Brown was not given a better chance to develop a gift which some of the greatest artists called wonderful.

In a May 1922 editorial in The Crisis titled Art for Nothing, Du Bois writes:

There is a deep feeling among many people and particularly among colored people that Art should not be paid for. The feeling is based on an ancient and fine idea of human Freedom in the quest of Beauty and on a dream that the artist rises and should rise above paltry considerations of dollars and food. At the same time everybody knows that artists must live if their art is to live. Everybody knows that if the people who enjoy the artist’s work do not pay for it, somebody else must or his work cannot go on. Despite this practical, obvious fact, we are united with singular unity to starve colored artists.

He proceeds to list a series of living artists from Meta Warrick Fuller to William A. Scott all struggling to make a living but he concludes the list with his lost protege, “Richard Brown died of privation while yet a boy.

In another essay about art, in October 1926, he says, “There was Richard Brown. If he had been white he would have been alive today instead of dead of neglect. Many helped him when he asked but he was not the kind of boy that always asks. He was simply one who made colors sing.

Landscape by Richard Lonsdale Brown

Landscape by Richard Lonsdale Brown

In 1928, Mary Brown, Richard Brown’s mother, wrote to Du Bois. She had a dozen of his paintings and sought his aid in selling them in New York. With the money raised she hoped to create a monument for her son. They were all unframed, she said, and encouraged him to deduct the expense of framing from the sell of the paintings and also to deduct a stipend for his time. He took on the task but was unsuccessful. Even with the aid of Mary Beattie Brady of The Harmon Foundation, he could find no one willing to spend more than few dollars per painting. Brady and he agreed that they should not be sold for so little.  In the last letter between Du Bois and Brown’s mother, dated April 1931, Du Bois expresses his regrets and asks if she’d like him to return the paintings or to hold on to them in hopes that the New York scene might improve.

Today Brown’s paintings sell for thousands of dollars.

Sources and Additional Reading

West Virginia Collegiate Institute Monthly, December 1917, p. 3

The Sun Newspaper, October 5, 1913, p. 39

Star of Ethiopia Photograph, The Crisis Magazine, August 2016

Black and White Sat Down Together: The Reminiscences of an NAACP Founder (pp. 75-76)

Letters of W. E. B. Du Bois, UMASS Special Collections – http://credo.library.umass.edu/

W. E. B. Du Bois

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donald langosy in the studio

donald langosy in a studio from the early days

For the past six Thursdays it has been been my pleasure to share the words and images of painter Donald Langosy. In collaboration with his daughter, he produced a unique 14-page memoir visually chronicling his evolution as an artist. I was allowed to share that memoir on this blog interspersed with additional words and images by Langosy.

Last Thursday’s post – story of my art – shakespeare and the joy of being, revealed that Mr. Langosy was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2003. Has it affected how he expresses himself as an artist? Of course. But decrease in mobility and even fine motor skills has in no way decreased his creativity or even his productivity. As he has stated he does not allow MS into his studio, but he has welcomed visitors on occasion.

donald langosy in the studio present day

donald langosy still in the studio present day

I have been lucky enough to sit in his space and at his side and see his works-in-progress upon the easel, the canvases stacked against the wall, his sculptures tucked in high nooks, and what I especially love (and I tell him each time) the books, the books, the books, on so many different subjects, collected over the years! And no matter how crammed the space becomes with paintings and books and new technologies to enable him in his work, there is always space for the grandchildren.

grandchildren in the studio

grandchildren in the studio

Below are a few more images. Please enjoy this virtual peek inside the studio, present and past, of Donald Langosy.

Photos provided by Zoe Langosy.

View The Story of My Art: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6.

View four decades of Langosy’s work at http://www.donald.langosy.net/

See what’s current on Langosy’s Facebook page.

His contact: Zoe Langosy at zlangosy@me.com.

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detail from isle of prospero by langosy

detail from isle of prospero by langosy

Editorial note: Throughout this unique sharing of his life as an artist, Mr. Langosy has focused on the influence of poets like Ezra Pound, painters like Titian, and underscoring everything, the influence of his muse, Elizabeth. In the following pages, he describes and depicts the influence of Shakespeare. But in the 1990s something else also affected his artistic journey.

“… my mobility inexplicably became impaired. As I gradually lost the ability to walk and became increasingly fatigued, I was no longer able to pursue connections in the art world or mount exhibits as I had in the past. I was told that my disability had psychiatric origins and that I would walk again when I was ready to do so. Over time, my paintings became as small as my housebound universe, sometimes shrinking to the size of a postage stamp. In October 2003, I collapsed and was taken to a hospital, where I was finally diagnosed with secondary progressive multiple sclerosis. Once I knew that I wasn’t crazy after all and began targeted treatments … I am convinced that a huge factor in my remission was my decision to not allow MS to enter my studio.”

And now …

View preceding episodes in The Story of My Art: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5

View four decades of his work at http://www.donald.langosy.net/

See what’s current, as well as wonderful old photos of the artist at work, via Langosy’s Facebook page.

His contact: Zoe Langosy at zlangosy@me.com.

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