Follow by Email

07 December 2014

the black odyssey

-romare bearden-

why is this lowercase? why are black letters always smaller, diminutive, minority?

Romare Bearden, Black Odyssey, 1977
BECAUSE THEY HAVE TO BE. JUST TO SURVIVE, THEY HAVE TO WRITE THEMSELVES INTO A SYSTEM THAT HAS MADE NO SPACE FOR THEM, THAT LEAVES NOT A BREATH TO BE TAKEN BY THEM: FIND THE WEE SPACES, THE SPACES BETWEEN SPACES, THE SPACES IGNORED BY THE SYSTEM THAT HAS WRITTEN THEM INTO THE MARGINS.

I saw the Black Odyssey by Romare Bearden at Columbia yesterday with my sister and my son. Two weeks ago we saw the Matisse exhibit, very much upper case, at MoMA. Lines out the door, timed tickets, crammed galleries.

This fall a good friend of mine was working on a thesis in which he would project a new Afrofuturism: a future in which black culture is regarded, precious, archived. I don't know what happened, but his work is not seeing the light - marginalized, once more? Who here knows about the Bearden exhibit? Who has read William Wells Brown's Clotel? If you've read Octavia Butler or Ishmael Reed, if you've seen Bearden, then maybe you're reading between the lines. But most people aren't, or can't.

Romare Bearden, Black Odyssey, 1977
I find it impossible to ignore what Bearden paints in his collage - a writing of black experience on a hallowed white classic. I also see what I think many of us see when I look at his collage collection: not an Odyssey, but a slave trade. I cannot help but see the history of murder, rape, forced assimilation. But how could Bearden paint that? How could he speak that violence, that grand tragedy in but the margins?

Bearden takes it all back here. He puts Black faces, Black skin into the history, rewriting history - no, Black history is not "folk" stories, and tales of little black Sambo; black history is majestic, it is mythologic, it tells of who we are, what we've become: all of us; and it cannot be cast into the margins, because it is the story. It is not a sub-plot, a veering lane. It is the story - it is the story of humanity. What do we as a people make of ourselves? Bearden writes himself, his people into the accepted, hallowed opus.

I will not fit myself into cracks. I will paste myself up. I will cover the old, I will assert myself. "AM I NOT A MAN?" My history will not be marginalized. My people are here and we will lay ourselves on, we will be heard, we will be known. We will be recognized.

Romare Bearden, Black Odyssey, 1977

So, what then? Still a slave trade? Or is this a great hero who conquers all his enemies to return to his home, to come home to his rightful life?  To the life he made, he earned, he built with tears, sweat, blood. Perhaps these stories are the Afrofuturism. Perhaps Bearden painted the future: black people, brown people, red people rising up to claim their places of heroism in the story of humanity, to take their seats at the table of humanity, to reclaim their rightful inheritance.

Perhaps Black Odysseus returns home to an America that needs him desperately - a warrior who has survived his tests, seen it all, knows what lurks out there all too well, come home ready to reclaim his title, spread the knowledge, use his experience, and lead the people.

In an ancient First Nations tale, each hue of humankind was given a strength, emblematic in an element: white holds fire, yellow holds air, red holds earth, and black holds water. Water was always the hardest to define because it is the source. It is intuition, soul, the voice we sometimes ignore, are at times unable to hear, that will be heard, one way or another. It is the voice of source, but we can claim its knowledge only with courage.

Perhaps Black Odysseus knows water. Perhaps humanity needs to hear him, not only to survive, but to become human.
Dedicated to the memories of Michael Brown, baby Kai, and Eric Garner.