SLEEPING IN THE FIRE
a book by Elizabeth de Souza
a book by Elizabeth de Souza
Let’s just call him Bunch. The name is as unusual as the man himself, its origins as hidden as Bunch’s tortured history. But from infancy, for reasons unknown, McCleary Washington, a tall, dark, eccentric, gifted, troubled, visionary African-American artist and author, was known as Bunch. What kind of name is that? Why leave one singular first name, McCleary, for one even more curious? There are no answers; there are many answers. That’s Bunch for you, even from the grave.
As I grew up in a blissful bubble of unrecognized poverty, I called him Dad. My young spirit blossomed under his care—his lyrical storytelling about everyday life, resplendent with moral truths, the distinct and intoxicating rhythms he coaxed out of his treasured Haitian cow-skin conga drums, his luminous art that transformed our threadbare home into a live-in gallery space, and most of all, the way he gave my ideas serious contemplation, as if, like me, they were inherently worthy. I took it for granted that he attracted admirers in our Brooklyn neighborhood like sparrows to trees. Of course his name was unusual--why should it be any different than its owner?
Years later, after his descent into addiction and homelessness made him physically attack me in a fit of resentment and confusion, I was loath to speak his name at all. I began writing SLEEPING IN THE FIRE out of sheer desperation, as I considered the possibility that a distorted perception of black American men was simultaneously fueling and hiding an epidemic of undiagnosed mental illness among this statistically small yet culturally influential group. I wrote without the benefit of new research that has since accumulated about the hidden costs—psychological, physical, and economic—of racism. The police violence against African American men now front and center in our national dialogue is only one component of a much larger and all-encompassing threat to black folks’ mental stability—what one scholar in a recent New York Times Magazine article called “a diagnosable disorder … largely unrecognized in most people” that is triggered by the everyday minority experience. For some black men, it can become an endless loop: Their depression and anger are both a natural outcome of systemic discrimination, and help to perpetuate it.
I was parsing all this out in my writing long before names like Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin and Eric Garner provoked a global conversation about what it means to be black and male, before writers like Ta-Nehisi Coates of The Atlantic captured our attention by pondering these issues in print. I needed to write the type of book I couldn’t find anywhere, a book that might help me survive a lifetime of Bunch.
Born in 1937, Bunch was the grandson of Mary Washington, aka "Mom White,” a Southern sharecropper who settled in an impoverished section of North Philadelphia during the Great Migration that began in the 1920s. Mary’s first husband, John Washington, was an attentive and loving father to their four children, and also Mary's daughter, who was just a toddler when they wed. John cared for little Curlean as if she were his own blood. As Curlean approached puberty, John and Mary had no idea that she had suffered almost a decade of secret rape at the hands of John’s half-brother, Jesse. Curlean was only fourteen years old when she became pregnant with Bunch, exposing the abuse.The baby arrived sometime in late April or early May of 1937—the exact day was never recorded or celebrated, and for the rest of his life Bunch persistently forgot the birthdays of his wife and children. John took ill and died shortly after Bunch's birth, but not before hearing Mary swear she would kill Jesse, whom she had trusted, if he ever came near Curlean again. Everyone knew Mom White kept a pistol in the second-floor bedroom of her narrow row house at 17 West Pomona Street in Germantown. Jesse Washington vanished, never to be spoken of in Mom White’s household, especially as little Bunch grew and wondered from whence he came.
But Bunch was too intelligent not to unearth his origins. I met my rapist grandfather Jesse Washington only once, as a small girl. He was in the hospital bed that would soon carry his corpse. Dad took me there with my brother, whose name is Jesse Washington.
When I think about my father’s childhood environment, where toxic secrets grew alongside laughter and hard-won resilience, secrets that could so saturate a person’s soul he would name his first-born after the man who raped his mother, I can’t help but wonder what part of his artistic genius sprang from this fertile yet poisonous mix. In Bunch’s art, human forms are graceful, almost appearing to float. Like the art-people he created, Bunch often seemed to possess an ethereal quality, moving through the world with extraordinary poise even when under extreme duress. Only a few understood the fragility beneath that detachment, the torments he turned into beauty.
Young Bunch’s innate artistic talent was first noticed by a grade-school teacher. His high-school portfolio earned him a city-funded scholarship to the Philadelphia Museum School, the university he attended over his family’s well-meaning objections. With the cold-blooded logic of the poor, they saw no future in making something that nobody they knew ever bought. Bunch then studied for two years at the Barnes Foundation, one of the country’s most influential art institutions. At the Barnes, surrounded by Renoirs and Matisses, his talent and intellect finally nurtured and appreciated, Bunch became an artist. Over the next decade, he flourished. In Philadelphia, Bunch and two collaborators converted an abandoned home into a modest but successful art gallery. He embraced the Bahá’í Faith, a religion that imbued Bunch’s life and art with a resonant sense of humility and spirituality. After moving to New York City, Bunch partnered with his future wife to open a small soul food restaurant that became a gathering place for artists, writers and musicians like Charles Mingus, Ishmael Reed and Amiri Baraka. He invented a new artistic medium, the Transparent Collage, using liquid resin that hardens into a luminous panel filled with color, objects and images. And most improbably, in 1973, when black art was ghettoized and ignored by the insular powers controlling the art and publishing worlds, Bunch managed to create a luxurious, magnificent coffee-table book about his mentor, Romare Bearden. Published by the legendary Harry Abrams, Bunch’s The Art of Romare Bearden: The Prevalence of Ritual was an instant classic that helped vault Bearden into the ranks of America’s greatest artists.
At age 35, Bunch had a wife and two young children, a vibrant artistic and spiritual life, and the backing of Bearden, the nation’s most important black artist. A towering, magnetic figure in his ever-present beret and corn-cob pipe, he brimmed with an intellect and energy that poured forth in the poetic essay he penned for The Art of Romare Bearden:
…sudden black power, awful exactness
being composed, consummated in simple
and profound, ordinary black people.
from the fairest old man to the darkest girl child…
Twenty-five years later, the long fingers of an old artist pressed into the soft flesh of my neck. Bunch was an enraged and bitter failure, furious at my refusal to relinquish the art that I knew he would turn into cocaine. After coming to his relative senses and leaving my house, Bunch began the final chapter of his life, desolate and homeless in New York City, which had once promised him everything.
Those desperate, clawing fingers forced me to ask myself:
What happened to McCleary “Bunch” Washington? What happened to my father?
The book-long answer to this question explores how social and mental predicaments conspire with culture to blind us to obvious truths. SLEEPING IN THE FIRE uses Bunch’s extraordinary life and art to explore the relationship between mental health, artistic genius and American culture. Since I began, this book has been the basis of a Teacher’s Assistantship and full scholarship for an MFA program at George Mason University, a university course at Franklin and Marshall College, a student-made short documentary, an award-winning literary essay, and most recently, an art exhibition at the Phillips Museum at Franklin & Marshall College. Once the book is published, it should continue to branch out into other related projects.
My questions first began to take form when I came to the mind-boggling realization, after spending what seemed like my entire life trying to help my father, that he had struggled for years with undiagnosed mental illness. I could not believe something so obvious had been hidden from my sight for so long. It wasn’t just me--close family members, including social workers and physicians, also were clueless. Why? Why had we spent years depleting our financial and emotional resources on what is essentially a health problem? If my father had a heart disease, would we have decided we were qualified to perform surgery ourselves?
The questions multiplied. What if most people—decent people of all ethnicities, not just racists and bigots—unwittingly harbor deeply ingrained misconceptions about “certain types” of black men? What if it’s near-impossible for these men to get through the week, or sometimes even the day, without an incident that bruises their dignity and inflicts emotional trauma? What if these men have become so used to the strange combination of fear and fascination they evoke in strangers that they don’t realize how profoundly this can distort their own thinking process? What if African-Americans have been faced with this reality for so long that they sometimes unintentionally help create an environment where black male angst and frustration, as well as the attempt to mask or stifle it, is considered normal?
In Bunch’s case, there was yet another complication. A growing body of research suggests a distinct connection between artistic achievement and mental illness. While the research is relatively new, the idea of the “crazy artist” is centuries old—no one is tremendously surprised when an artist or poet (Bunch was both) struggles with emotional stability. The same symptoms that might not raise concern among African-American men could also go unnoticed at a poets’ retreat--or within the family of a career artist.
At this moment, with the nation awash in news reports, social media and films revealing just how deeply American consciousness has been influenced by racial dynamics, Bunch’s life is bigger than my own personal story. In the same way that Michelle Alexander’s 2012 release “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness” almost singlehandedly helped people reformulate the way they think about the specific challenges black men face within America’s justice system, and how it overlaps into virtually every aspect of their lives, so too will this book open a new area of thought about the cultural climate that helps shape all of America. The title SLEEPING IN THE FIRE is taken from the name Bunch gave his journal during his final years while dwelling in various homeless shelters and on park benches. The book contains powerful metaphors about the urgency to unblock the human capacities latent in every soul, and how one person’s fire can become a trailblazing light leading us towards new and unexpected realities.
Photo of Bunch Washington (top of page) courtesy of Valentine New York