Glenda Elizabeth Gilmore: Romare Bearden In The Homeland Of His Imagination: An Artist’s Reckoning With The South |  University of North Carolina Press; March 2022

When harassment from a white mob forced the family of renowned artist Romare Bearden to flee their Charlotte home for Harlem in 1915, he was only four years old.

In a new biography, Romare Bearden in the Homeland of His Imagination: An Artist’s Reckoning with the South, Yale University scholar Glenda Elizabeth Gilmore chronicles four generations of Bearden’s remarkable family and points to how one of the most “prolific, original and acclaimed American artists of the twentieth century” offered “episodic glimpses” of his Charlotte childhood.

The beautifully illustrated new volume, published by the University of North Carolina Press, offers a rich and compelling portrait of Bearden’s family and how it informed his journey of becoming a nationally recognized artist.

His depictions of Black culture in turn inspired the playwriting of Pittsburgh resident August Wilson, who often referred to the “Four B’s” as his inspiration: Bearden, the blues, poet Amiri Baraka, and the Argentine short-story writer Jorge Luis Borges. Bearden’s work as a cubist painter also relies on the blues, Black poetry, and mysticism while chronicling the grand sweep of the American South and the Black tradition.

Memory, however, can be as firmly rooted as a tree, and as elusive as shadows around midnight.

“He could not tell precisely what he remembered or what generalized African American culture, particularly Black Southern culture, evoked for him,” Gilmore writes. “As he created paintings and collages, he often did not know what was real, what was partially real, and what was a dream. This creative conundrum drove his artistic expression and sparked his imagination.”

Gilmore further notes that the “contrasts of history and memory also testify to the violence that slavery and Jim Crow wrought on African American memory and self-representation.”

“A century and a half of historical neglect, family secrets, silences and a racist archive that hides the Black past stole a factual family story from Bearden, even as he often tried to capture it visually,” the author adds.

Born in Charlotte, Bearden moved to Harlem with his family when he was a toddler and, later, Pittsburgh. He died in New York City on March 12, 1988. He was a formally trained artist and full-time social worker, whose “artistic trajectory reflects the history of twentieth-century art”: social realism during the 1930s, abstract expressionism in the 1940s, and the iconic collage paintings that began in the late 1950s, Gilmore writes.

Bearden’s work is rooted in memories of an impressive family. His dignified great-grandparents Rosa Catherine Gosprey Kennedy and Henry Kennedy had been enslaved by President Woodrow Wilson’s father, “but when they spoke of it, they said they had been ‘servants,’” Gilmore writes.

Gilmore also discovered that his grandmother Cattie Bearden was president of the North Carolina Women’s Christian Temperance Union #2.

“Bearden’s great-grandparents entered Reconstruction with considerable advantages: literacy, a federal job, and small business,” Gilmore writes. “They owned outright a large Victorian home with a wraparound front porch, two rental houses and a store.”

The Kennedy and Bearden family story “is a compelling saga of Black middle-class achievement in the face of relentless waves of white supremacy.”

“He began life bathed in love and certain of his place in it,” the author adds, who later notes that as a child at his grandfather’s knee, Bearden “heard—and forgot—stories before he had the words to process them as memories.”

Bearden, Gilmore notes, “realized that he could not see these memories in full. Instead they were fragments of a past that he found he partially recovered through the process of collage. He began with rectangular colors, added paper, put in cutout material such as illustrations or fabrics, and painted and drew his impressions across the disjunctures. He did it again and again in the same work.”

Gilmore writes that memory, mystery, and myth drove Bearden’s work—that he “understood that the sum of his artistic life had slipped the bonds of reality and embraced the realm of the mythical.”

Though he spent most of his childhood up north, Bearden’s legacy began to flourish in Charlotte in the early 2000s when the Charlotte Mint Museum exhibited six of his collages. Landmarks and community spots from the city showed up often in his work. In 2011, a five-acre park was built in his name near where his great-grandparents’ home once stood. Near the end of his life, Gilmore notes, Bearden said, “I never left Charlotte, except physically.”

Bearden’s work is evidence that one can go home, if only in memory.

As the distinguished historian notes, the great artist also said this: “You leave and then return to the homeland of your imagination.”

It’s a powerful volume.

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