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Who Are These People?

Early on, dealers from around the country would call to say they had a painting for me—for me because it was Southern. The easy explanation reckoned that it had to be so—Southern, that is— because it had black people in it. From my childhood playing on the farm with “nigra” neighbors (as my grandmother Sweetheart called them), I understood that Jesse Johnson would always be stronger than me, only in part because he was a little older. Together, we would run down baby rabbits exposed after Papa cut hay; Jesse’s mother then raised them to fry. Later, in my halcyon days playing bass behind Ted Wright’s piano and Reid Sullivan’s drums at a small club in Spartanburg, I developed friendships with black musicians and guests, and found great pleasure in those associations. We played and worked and understood. That was the way of my youth.

There was nothing Southern, however, about the “mammies” that peopled Harry Roseland’s canvases, a character type that told fortunes and read tea leaves. Roseland’s African Americans had gone north, much like my boyhood pal Jesse. Jesse had wanted to be an architect—a word he taught me—but didn’t make it. He works for the sewer authority in New York City. Roseland worked in the city, too, in Brooklyn to be precise.

Whenever dealers would call offering what they deemed Southern, I would politely set them straight. Roseland aside, in those first years I was terribly—and regrettably—rigid in my interpretation of the Mason-Dixon Line and turned away more paintings than I care to count because they didn’t fall within a geographically centered construct of what Southern was about—African American subjects not withstanding. In his institution’s landmark publication, The Southern Collection, Greenville County Museum of Art Director Tom Styron defined Southern art broadly, pulling more chairs up to the table than had previously been included. But that wasn’t until 1995 (though we had defined it—Tom and me, among ourselves—long before) and many an opportunity had passed me by then. The notion endured, though, and sellers—dealers and collectors alike—would insist that the presence of a black figure on canvas was proof positive of a painting’s Southern credentials, despite the lack of any other evidence to support the contention.

Thomas Satterwhite Noble’s The Price of Blood, John Adam Houston’s The Fugitive Slave, and Luther Terry’s An Allegory of North and South are the quintessence of exceptional African American imagery in Southern art. While my life experiences had given me a certain awareness, I could not see nor understand that through the lens of the nineteenth century. I may have played jazz and copied Count Basie in a smoky club from my position as an advantaged white college graduate, but I didn’t shoot marbles with the boys in Frank Buchser’s masterpiece, Four Black Marble Players. I had a lot to learn.

So, who are these people? Others have pondered the question as well. Recently, Tom Styron actually suggested a title under which to knit the paintings together, simple and to the point: Race. This is a term that carries both positive and negative connotations, as determined by the person who speaks it or as conjured by the listener. I remember black musicians and entertainers being called “race acts.” I never interpreted an intentional disparagement, just the recognition that these talents were African American. The word does wake you up, though, alerting you to make note of what might follow.

Our gallery mounted an exhibition of a number of paintings we have owned that are masterpieces within this genre and all under this title: Race. Each picture, in its day, conveyed important messages on issues of social, political, and historical importance to the viewing audience. Surely our modern understanding can only be enhanced by the consideration of these works, individually and en masse, just as today’s fine art (and, not to mention, Google and YouTube images) will someday speak volumes of our present generation’s positions and prejudices. The question persists, yesterday, today, and tomorrow: Who are these people?

North and South (1858)
Oil on canvas
50 x 70 inches
Signature Details: LT/58
Owner: Greenville County Museum of Art, Greenville, South Carolina
1451 River Road · Yemassee, SC 29945 · 843.412.8738
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