SLEEPING IN THE FIRE
The Black Artist in America
a book by Elizabeth de Souza
The Black Artist in America
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?
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 now forced to the forefront of our national dialogue about race 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 black experience. These findings bolster my theory that for people like my father, it can become an endless loop: Their depression and anger are both a natural outcome of systemic discrimination, and help to perpetuate it.
This would be devastating enough for the average black or multi-race family. But for an artist, whose sensitivity and artistic genius are often symbiotic, depression poses an even more sinister danger. I know this from my life with Bunch, but also from my own uneasy truce with the artistic temperament I inherited from him. Seeing and feeling so deeply would be a more welcome gift if I had the ability, on occasion, to mute its loud colors and vibrant sounds. Lacking this ability, I write. But even this carries ambivalence, in part because of the pervasive idea that in the arts, brilliance is linked with intense personal suffering, and even mental illness. My art should keep me sane, but the indefatigable concentration needed for any kind of artistic excellence can be almost—but not quite—as maddening as life without the hope of creating something beautiful and lasting.
Science has neither conclusively validated nor disproved the idea of the crazy artist. Studies showing a relationship between artistic achievement and mental illness have been criticized for poor controls, investigative bias, and other suspected flaws. Yet the idea persists. In my own family, which includes physicians and social workers, Bunch’s artistic temperament helped mask his symptoms for decades. As long as Bunch was creating, we clung to the idea that his problems would evaporate once he found the right teaching job, gallery, paying project, or patron. That he never found any of these things leads me back to wondering: To what extent did black malehood obfuscate my father’s struggle?
As the years and rejection letters piled up, and embers of frustration burned straight through the fabric of his composure, shouldn’t someone—anyone—have suggested that he needed psychiatric help? Or are we so culturally acclimated to the idea of the chronically unemployed black man, prone to fits of irrational anger, that even a person as loved and admired as Bunch can seamlessly fall into the black hole of our unconscious expectations?
Even now, after almost ten years of researching, writing and reflecting on these issues, I still find the confluence of Bunch’s blackness, his artistic talent, and his mental instability impossibly tangled. Yet the overarching story of his life is not confusing at all—it’s remarkably simple, and no different from yours, mine, or anyone else’s. It is the quest to become fully ourselves, in spite of the tightly woven matrix of powerful forces that are seemingly designed to prevent it. Bunch’s problems, much like ours, were tailor-made to fit his particular time, family, and culture. Sometimes I think of his deeply entrenched problems almost like a set of baby’s receiving blankets, passed down through the generations, lovingly contributed by various family members. Instead of outgrowing them, they grew along with him, molding into a multi-purposed garment that could not be so easily discarded.
In some ways, the issues that cloaked Bunch throughout his life are irrelevant to the rest of the world—everyone who lives has hurdles to overcome. But in other ways, his particular constellation of interlocking dilemmas might be important to understand as we search for solutions to our country’s most divisive issues, especially those linked with race and culture.
The more I grapple with the complexities of Bunch’s life, the deeper I am drawn into the kaleidoscope of stories about the black artist in America, which to me, seem so clearly connected to the fever-pitch debates I hear in screaming headlines and whispered conversations. What began as an attempt to salvage my father’s life has become, after his death, an almost mystical journey into the heart of black genius. I walk around with the voices of black artists past and present speaking to me through the poignancy of their triumphs, the relevance of their work, and their unwavering insistence that they have something to say that can only be neglected for but so long. Ignore us at your own peril, they say. We are here to give you what you don’t know is missing.
Unlike days past, we might finally be able to see and hear them. New curiosity is being forced to flower through the fertilizing effect of a world in constant turmoil—a world with the increasing ability to see itself in its entirety, rather than in small, self-centered, regional pieces. This may be what Alice Walker alludes to when she speaks of art being linked with salvation. “Art is the mirror,” she says, “perhaps the only one, in which we can see our true collective face. We must honor its sacred function. We must let art help us.”
As I search for the artists living and working amongst us, the black artists who create because they must, I am consumed with an urgency that is sometimes difficult to explain, even to myself. If the mere phrase “black lives matter” provokes controversy, exploring why black art matters is about as easy as trying to comb an Afro with a spoon. But then I remember that art is not only for those who appreciate it when and how we want them to. The highest art gives substance to the indefinable—it preserves our highest aspirations, all while bringing us clues about ourselves from the infinite realm.
This is the terrain I navigated as I wrote about Bunch’s life, and later, the lives of other black artists. I needed to write the type of book I couldn’t find anywhere, a book that explores how art and race intersect with American culture in all its insanity; a book that I should have read twenty years ago—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?
Photo of Bunch Washington (top of page) courtesy of Valentine New York