The first Memorial Day or Decoration Day (decorating soldiers’ graves with flowers) has its origins with African American former slaves in Low Country, South Carolina. Thank you South Carolina Sisters and Brothers! Like most Civil War topics, this holiday has a lot to do with memories lost and whitewashed. Even on mainstream websites, false credit is given to women’s history—that Memorial Day was somehow an idea created by a military officer’s wife.
But thanks to Yale professor David W. Blight who authored American Oracle: Civil War in the Civil Rights Era, and NY Times article, we are able to verify what genealogists and African American oral historians have been whispering for eons about the true origins of Memorial Day.
Memorial Day (originally called Decoration Day) is a day of remembrance for those who have died in service to the United States.
Learn about the African American origins of this American holiday according to a New York Times article excerpt by Professor David W. Blight:
“The procession was led by 3,000 black schoolchildren carrying armloads of roses and singing the Union marching song “John Brown’s Body.” Several hundred black women followed with baskets of flowers, wreaths and crosses. Then came black men marching in cadence, followed by contingents of Union infantrymen. Within the cemetery enclosure a black children’s choir sang “We’ll Rally Around the Flag,” the “Star-Spangled Banner” and spirituals before a series of black ministers read from the Bible.
After the dedication the crowd dispersed into the infield and did what many of us do on Memorial Day: enjoyed picnics, listened to speeches and watched soldiers drill. Among the full brigade of Union infantrymen participating were the famous 54th Massachusetts and the 34th and 104th United States Colored Troops, who performed a special double-columned march around the gravesite.
The war was over, and Memorial Day had been founded by African-Americans in a ritual of remembrance and consecration. The war, they had boldly announced, had been about the triumph of their emancipation over a slaveholders’ republic. They were themselves the true patriots.
Despite the size and some newspaper coverage of the event, its memory was suppressed by white Charlestonians in favor of their own version of the day. From 1876 on, after white Democrats took back control of South Carolina politics and the Lost Cause defined public memory and race relations, the day’s racecourse origin vanished.
Indeed, 51 years later, the president of the Ladies’ Memorial Association of Charleston received an inquiry from a United Daughters of the Confederacy official in New Orleans asking if it was true that blacks had engaged in such a burial rite in 1865; the story had apparently migrated westward in community memory. Mrs. S. C. Beckwith, leader of the association, responded tersely, “I regret that I was unable to gather any official information in answer to this.”
My father’s Creole New Orleans and mother’s Caribbean food ways were based on rice and beans. Here are two of my favorite rice and beans recipes. Both styles have roots in Spanish, French and African traditions.
Only on Mondays: Louisiana Creole red beans and rice was a Monday tradition in our New York home. Ham, bacon and andouille sausage were major ingredients. Only recently did I learned why we ate these beans on Mondays. Turns out, it was all about multitasking. Apparently, Mondays was traditionally laundry day in many Southern homes. My father’s southern relatives taught my mother to keep up this food tradition. For the record, mother did laundry everyday because she ran a home-based daycare center. But, that’s another story. Beans ‘cooked down’ with Sunday’s leftover ham bone does not require much fuss. Thus, you can wash, iron, fold laundry and cook all at the same time! But the secret to this delicious dish is to get started right after Monday’s breakfast so that the flavors have enough time to deepen in time for dinner. And these beans become tastier as each day passes. Another flavor consideration is how to bake the ham the night before. Did you baste it with a mixture of brown sugar, mustard, pineapple slices and clove? I would. I use whatever is on hand. Substitute ham bone with a ham hock. I only eat brown rice. This dish is traditionally served with white rice. Sometimes we ate these beans in a bowl with a side of cornbread!
Creole Red Beans and Rice
Ingredients: kidney beans 1 lb., 1 Sunday leftover ham bone or 1 medium smoked ham hock; 1 andouille sausage or 4 slices bacon; 1 tbsp. vegetable oil; trinity—1 chopped medium onion, 3 celery stalks, chopped w/leaves, 1 medium chopped bell pepper; 4 chopped cloves of garlic, 4 whole cloves, 2 Bay leaves, 1 tsp. each parsley, sage, thyme or 4 sprigs of each fresh herb; hot sauce to taste; black pepper to taste, ¼ tsp. cayenne pepper; 1 quart water; reserved bean water; 6 cups cooked brown rice.
Directions: wash, sort, and soak beans overnight in 1 quart of water. Reserve the maroon-colored bean water.
In deep heavy skillet or Dutch oven, sauté on medium heat, sausage or bacon slices, trinity, garlic in vegetable oil until translucent. Render fat, oil. Add water, press cloves into meat on hambone or hock; add the drained, soaked beans, herbs, and seasonings. Bring all to boil, half-cover with lid, simmer 4-5 hours. Add bean water sparingly throughout cooking; stir and mash some of the beans to create a thickened, creamy bean broth. Serve over cooked rice.
Note: To shorten the cooking time to 30 minutes, use canned beans, add ‘Cajun’ seasoning to water stock. Keep rest of ingredients.
Caribbean Red Beans and Rice
Although Trinidadian, my mother served Jamaican ‘peas and rice’ often. It is not really ‘peas’ but kidney beans. We ate this sometimes everyday with stir-fried veggies, meats or fish. It is a mild, vegetarian, gluten-free one-pot rice dish that pairs well with all Caribbean and Creole foods.
Ingredients: red beans, 1 lb. cooked; 1 can (13.5oz.) of coconut milk-Goya, Coco Lopez brand, Indian or Thai variety is good; 2 ¼ cups maroon-colored bean water; 2 cups rice; ¼ cup fresh grated coconut (optional) (Do not use bagged grated coconut from bakery aisle!), 1 tsp. vegetable or coconut oil, ½ cup chopped medium onion, 1 chopped scallion, 2 sprigs thyme, 1 whole Scotch Bonnet hot pepper. Do not cut or chop Scotch bonnet pepper. Just leave in pot!
Note: Cooking the beans together with rice in the same pot is an art form. Too much liquid makes mush. Not enough liquid with rice makes a dried out mess. Remember, the beans must be cooked, as above, or use canned beans. I found Basmati or Uncle Ben’s rice is the easiest to cook. Basmati brown rice works very well. Use 1 cup of rice to 2 cups of liquid. Remember that brown rice requires at least ½ cup extra liquid and extra time cooking. You can substitute with pigeon peas, black beans, and black-eye peas.
Directions: Heat oil on medium heat, sauté scallion, onion, garlic, thyme. Add rice, beans, coconut, and liquid. Bring to boil uncovered. Stir in Scotch bonnet pepper, cover and simmer, about 30 minutes or until done.
“Where is Bearden’s room at a major art institution? Is there any better artist who speaks so eloquently and with such originality about America?” asked Russell Goings, poet, art collector, Bearden caretaker and chief organizer of a month-long tribute to Romare Bearden at the 92nd Street Y.
“The art of Romare Bearden was the art of a large and generous spirit that defined not only the character of Black American life, but also its conscience. I was looking at myself in ways I hadn’t thought of before and have never ceased to think of since,” said playwright August Wilson. Poet Kwame Dawes quoted the playwright’s words in a preface to his three-movement poem.
Wilson’s play, “The Piano Lesson,” was deeply influenced by Bearden’s work of the same name. So was Dawes’s poetry. The famous painting was featured prominently on the giant screen display as Dawes opened with these lines: ”Bernice…I don’t play that piano cause I don’t want to wake them spirits. They never be walking around this house.” Each movement was a collage of feeling, color and action: “Avoiding the Spirits,” “To Tame the Savage Beast,” and “The Lesson.”
Dawes is currently editing an anthology of poems with poet Matthew Shenoda about Bearden’s “Odyssey Series,” some of which were on display at the 92Y art gallery during the tribute.
Ex-slave and abolitionist Frederick Douglass’ speech “Pictures and Progress,” was referenced by curator, author, and Yale professor Sarah Lewis in her presentation. As she spoke, several collage paintings were displayed on the stage’s screen. Bearden’s primary medium was collage— a fusing of old magazine and newspaper photographic clippings, painting and fabric. She discussed the 19th century emergence of photography that had changed the social landscape. Photographs could counter but not always, the caricatured and exaggerated negative Negro images. She mentioned Douglass’ observation that “the sudden abundance of visual sources created a paradox in the new culture of visual awareness.”
“The picture and ballad are alike, if not equally social forces — the one reaching and swaying the heart by the eye, and the other by the ear’…In our country, the picture plays an important part in our politics’…In the making of our presidents, the political gatherings begins the operation, and the picture gallery ends it. The winner, in order to outvote, must out laugh his adversary,” Douglass said in his speech.
Lewis also referenced Bearden’s association with and study of artists, jazz musicians and writers and specially mentioned novelist Ralph Ellison’s friendship with the artist. Displaying Bearden’s “Card Players” next to Cezanne’s “Card Players” series on the stage screen showed Bearden’s magnificent jazzy variation on a theme. The pairing also demonstrated an artist who was always inspired and processing information.
Poet, scholar, teacher, Elizabeth Alexander, who composed and delivered “Praise Song for a Day” for the 2008 President Barack Obama inauguration, spoke of art-making in the Diaspora. She emphasized: “Bearden is America’s preeminent artist—not its best Black artist! And anyone who disagrees, I’m ready to fight them.” To her, art is poetry. She also shared her family connection to Bearden that “goes back for decades.” She described a Christmas gift of a crucifix painting that a young 8-year-old Romare presented to her mother. Her grandfather was the famous artist Charles Alston. Alexander said that they all visited with each other through the years.
John Edgar Wideman, author of several novels and winner of numerous awards including PEN/Faulkner Award and the American Book Award,described Bearden’s work “Farewell to Eugene,” a funeral for his childhood friend. “The genius comes from how and why Bearden worked with what looked like too many pieces to fit into one painting,” Wideman said. Considered his most dense collage, Wideman explained that “Farewell” was Bearden’s way to pay homage, though 50 years later, to his childhood friend who was part of his formative art experience. The crippled White boy lived with his mother above a brothel. The boys used to peek through a hole in the floor and draw “nasty” pictures of what they witnessed below on butcher paper. Bearden’s grandmother discovered them and brought the boy home to live with them. The boy became Bearden’s best friend. Sadly, the boy died a year later. A study of the art shows a dense portrait that brings the whole town of Pittsburgh together to pay their respects at Eugene’s funeral.
Stanley Crouch, author of several books and writings especially about jazz said that “all visual art is about freeing the line.” He discussed influences of Picasso and Flaubert and saw in Bearden’s work “the creation of emotional epics by re-imagining the vitality of his people through the influences of music from Louis Armstrong to other jazz greats.”
Khalil Gibran Muhammad, professor and author,spoke of his mission as Black history caretaker in his role as executive director of Harlem’s famed Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture Center. He promised to stay true to his cause by celebrating African American art. He shared a personal story about his first Bearden art purchase, a poster of “The Lamp.” It shined brightly on the stage screen. He chronicled purchasing it with his then partner, who later became his wife. He said that “together we hung the painting in our children’s bedroom and we only moved it once — when I took office at the Schomburg.”
Ton Morrison sent a note: “Romare Bearden was among the first African American visual artists to move painting away from the nostalgic and sentimental work that preceded him. His use of high modern technique and sensibility in order to re-imagine Black history produced amazing work still unsurpassed. Two of his paintings hang on my walls: one, a large watercolor of jazz musicians; the second, a dedicated print of a character in Song of Solomon. Each is profoundly different from the other; both reveal the depth of his talent and intelligence. All of which was vividly on display the last time I visited him in his studio. His body of work is for the ages.”
Co-sponsors were the Romare Bearden Foundation, the Schomburg Center and the West Chester Poetry Center—and in particular to Johanne Bryant-Reid and especially to Russell Goings.
I wonder if Romare Bearden knew how much children loved him. And teachers too! Ask any museum or art teacher! They will tell you that children laughed, giggled, squealed, stared and were genuinely enthralled by his art. Recently, while working as a consultant with a media & arts literacy project in Newark, the teachers told me that they naturally turned to Bearden. They said it was standard practice to use Bearden to help children, especially in under-served communities. They said that Bearden’s art had an uncanny way to reach these children to help them read, speak, write and express themselves. Non-speakers suddenly spoke. Slow-learners were discovered to be very intelligent, teachers reported.
I accompanied a 3rd grade class on a trip to a Newark gallery to see a Bearden exhibit. After a guided tour by special art educators, the children were taken to a classroom and given supplies that included old color magazines, colored papers, pens, paint, scissors and glue sticks. The kids were given one simple instruction: ‘Tell a story. Any story. Feel free to express yourself using Bearden’s art as inspiration. “
I wonder if Romare knew that so many poor children emulated his lyrical lines and assemblage. They used his art to escape their troubles. Many of the kids that I met that day lived in homeless shelters or were in foster care. The children framed their masterpieces that told hopeful and amazing stories about their little lives. After the program concluded, when asked to stand up and explain their art and tell everyone why they liked to read, a little Black boy, 8, said: ”I love to read because I can travel and go anywhere I want to go in my mind.”
Care about Bearden
“It’s beyond love. It’s about caring. Over time I became caretaker of Romare and his art. They were one. We had already been friends for many years. When he became ill, I cooked for him, bathed him. We talked and listened to music until his last day. He adopted me as his younger brother. He had no children of his own,” said Russell L. Goings, collector, friend, and caretaker.
Back when Goings and a group of colleagues started the Studio Museum of Harlem, with Romare among them, he began purchasing Romare’s work. Some purchases were for the museum, some for himself, some with his partner. Romare also gave him art. So many friends from those early days speak about that. How Romare gave his art away—as gifts, to settle debts, as a favor. Art was never about the money. It was always about art!
“No, I don’t love one painting more than the other. And he didn’t either. Each painting or artwork, story, conversation was nuanced. Romare worked in a historical context. His work had historical characteristics. What he was putting down was about history, which means it was about race, color, culture!”
“Look at the names of the titles of his work— from ‘Conjure Woman’ to Odyssey.’ We talked about many topics inside of a historical context i.e. Diaspora, migration, music, food, travel, slavery, racial segregation. Yes, we talked about White-Black relationships and Jewish-Black connection but inside of an artistic context. That’s what it was like to live with over 800 masterpieces by Romare Bearden,” said Goings about the preeminent late American artist.
Another way to love Bearden is to celebrate his work.
Romare Bearden: The Paper of Truth (through Dec. 9) at 92nd Street Y Gallery, features rare and never-before-seen works by America’s preeminent 20th century artist. This exhibit celebrates Bearden and also kicks off literary tributes to the late artist (Dec.3, 8 pm) by Toni Morrison, Elizabeth Alexander, Sarah Lewis, John Edgar Wideman, Henry Louis Gates, Stanley Crouch, Kwame Dawes, and Russell Goings.
Russell Goings was the braintrust behind this exhibit featuring the OdysseySeries and The Historical Figures. The 22-piece Odyssey series has not been shown in its entirety in NYC in over 30 years, according to gallery officials. Goings said that he has lived with these art works for many years in his home. He said that while all of the works have broad appeal, he liked the pairing of these particular works for a parallel narrative seen in Black and Jewish culture.
“The lines of Homer’s Odyssey are a metaphor for us,” said Goings. The African American diaspora and Bearden’s own family migration to Harlem from North Carolina are imbued with spirituality, music and culture, Goings explained. Visitors will see familiar faces among the historic figures i.e. John Brown, Crispus Attucks, Oceola, and Harriet Tubman. These were drawn with felt pens that showed Bearden’s lyrical lines and skills as a draftsman, he said.
”I believe these bold works build bridges and resonate as an echo. Both the Jewish people and Black Americans experienced profound grief and are journeying on a unique odyssey,” Goings said. “The same is heard in Bearden’s portrait of Rosa Parks in Jail. Look at that piece. It is saying, ’I will not be moved.’ But, it’s also saying ’How do I get out of this war called Jim Crow,” he said. Homer’s Odyssey themes depicted in this show — the hero, the quest, temptation, honor, and longing— are universally shared by all, he added.
Goings believes that the 92Y, known for its innovative community programs, was a perfect place to show some of his vast Bearden collection. With his life partner, Evelyn Boulware, Goings owns the world’s largest Bearden collection, estimated at 800 pieces. A serendipitous meeting between Goings and a 92Y director Bob Gilson began a conversation that planted the seed for the exhibit. “Russell has been tremendous resource for us on this project, sharing his artwork, memories, and expertise. He made it possible for us to create this tribute to Romare Bearden and to share his work, his life and his legacy with our audiences and with the next generation of admirers,” said Gilson, 92Y School of Arts director.
Goings, 80, a robust Renaissance man, who joked in Japanese and French during the interview, was a Black pioneer on Wall street, First Harlem Securities founder, a linebacker in the Canadian Football League, and a published poet. He was one of the founders of the Studio Museum of Harlem, having served as its first Board Chairman. He credits the intervention of Jewish therapists and teachers with his success. They helped him as a child struggling with stuttering and dyslexia in Stamford, Ct. He said a Jewish firm hired him on Wall Street when no one else would. “Every time I engaged in life, I was given avenues and presented bridges by my Jewish brothers,” Goings said in a NY Times article.
Bearden fans and newcomers will be moved and inspired by the mixed media and watercolors on display. The powerful self-portrait done only days before the artist’s death, at 75, in 1988, was drawn on a page taken from Jewish mysticism. It has never been seen in public before. It was drawn with his left hand because bone cancer had taken its toll on Bearden’s right hand, Goings said. The Romare Bearden Foundation and the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture are co-sponsors. Open and free to public, appointment recommended, 212-415-5563 or www.92Y.org/Bearden.