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Romare Bearden - «Conjure Women» Essay-Review - portions of this piece are excerpted from «Umpteen Essays in Search of a Novel, 1983-2023»

Authors:
  • National Book Critics Circle

Abstract

«The Romare Bearden Reader» is an anthology of writings by and about the artist by authors like Ralph Ellison, Toni Morrison, Albert Murray, Calvin Tomkins, John Edgar Wideman, August Wilson and a dozen others. «The Romare Bearden Reader» was edited by Columbia University professor Robert G. O'Meally. "Conjure Women" runs to 5,474 words.
Salmagundi Magazine
BLACK AMERICA: THE STATE OF THE CULTURE
PLUS
MODIGLIANI & THE POETS JEFFREY MEYERS
JAM SONGS MARK EDMUNDSON
LONDON LETTER: BORIS JOHNSON DAVID HERMAN
ROMARE BEARDEN KEVIN BROWN
SONTAG & RIEFF DAVID MIKICS
SPRING - SUMMER 2020 NUMBER 206 - 207 £8 | $10
THOMAS
CHATTERTON WILLIAMS
MARGO JEFFERSON
JOHN MCWHORTER
DARRYL PINCKNEY
ORLANDO PATTERSON
1
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S’
Salmagundi Magazine
A Quarterly
#206207 SPRING  SUMMER 2020
COLUMNS
GUEST COLUMN: JAM SONGS / MARK EDMUNDSON — 3
LETTER FROM LONDON: THE 2019 GENERAL ELECTION
DAVID HERMAN —12
ART & CULTURE: SONTAG & RIEFF / DAV I D MIKICS — 23
FORCE FIELDS: ON THE SPECTRUM: CONSPIRACY THEORIES
& EXPLANATIONS / MARTIN JAY — 34
ESSAYS
THE ENIGMA OF CONSTANCY: THE RESILIENCE OF TRUMPS
B
ASE / TODD GITLIN — 45
CONJURE WOMEN: ROMARE BEARDEN AND THE STORIES
GREAT GRANDMOTHER TOLD / KEVIN BROWN — 60
LIGHTER THAN AIR / JENNIFER STOCK — 76
MEMOIR
MARK STRAND GOING FAST / SPENCER REESE — 85
POEMS
THREE POEMS / ADRIE KUSSEROW — 91
THE VALLEY OF THE SHADOW / BARRY GOLDENSOHN — 97
WHAT SHE SEES IN THE DIORAMA / JAN C. GROSSMAN — 98
EDICT / SADAF HALAI — 100
ESSAY
MODIGLIANI AND THE POETS / JEFFREY MEYERS — 101
2
A SALMAGUNDI SYMPOSIUM:
THE BLACK INTELLECTUAL
& THE CONDITION OF THE CULTURE
SESSION ONE: THE RACIAL DELUSION
OPENING REMARKS BY THOMAS CHATTERTON WILLIAMS — 126
SESSION TWO: EXILE & RETURN
OPENING REMARKS BY DARRYL PINCKNEY — 175
SESSION THREE: PRESCRIPTIONS & PREJUDICES
OPENING REMARKS BY MARGO JEFFERSON — 202
SESSION FOUR: WOKENESS, ATONEMENT & CHANGE
OPENING REMARKS BY JOHN MCWHORTER — 228
SESSION FIVE: CULTURE & CLASS
OPENING REMARKS BY ORLANDO PATTERSON — 253
NOTES ON CONTRIBUTORS — 274
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60 KEVIN BROWN
Conjure Women: Romare Bearden and
the Stories Great-Grandmother Told*
BY KEVIN BROWN
Casual familiarity was the tone my great-grandmother’s oral
history narratives assumed. As widow of the poet Countée Cullen, ex-
ecutrix of his literary estate, Ida Cullen-Cooper took pride in knowing
everybody and everything connected to the Harlem Renaissance, including
artist Romare (“Romie”) Bearden. Countée, his many friends, colleagues


were expected back any moment. Countée and Ida Cullen were among

six years after he married her, Ida Mae became a noted collector in her
own right.
Our relationship grew and changed between the year I was born
and the 11 months we spent together until her death two years before
Bearden himself crossed over. I spent 21 years, 10 months and 29 days
living and working in New York. But one visit in particular, more or less
narrowed down by audio-visual impressions, stands out: The late Toni
*An essay-review of: The Romare Bearden Reader, edited by Robert G. O’Meally (Duke
University Press, 2019).
61
Conjure Women: Romare Bearden and the Stories Great-Grandmother Told
Romare Bearden
Bearden’s Studio on Canal Street, New York City (1976)
(Photo by Blaine Waller)
62 KEVIN BROWN
Morrison publishes Song of Solomon (1977) in a trade paper edition of
yellow, maroon and black; actor Ruby Dee records Countée’s children’s
book, The Lost Zoo, in 1978; an obituary of Harlem Renaissance artist
Aaron Douglas, one of Romare Bearden’s mentors, appears in The New
York Times in 1979. Until she downsized, Ida’s Tuckahoe house and Park
Avenue condo had been virtual galleries of African and African-American
art and culture: here a book by Langston Hughes, illustrated by Jacob
Home to Harlem, with
cover art by Aaron Douglas. She owned various artifacts: Benin bronzed
heads, Dan masks; a painting by Beaufort Delaney, the close friend of
Countée’s student Jimmy Baldwin; terra-cottas; a Hale Woodruff watercolor
of medieval Chartres. She rewarded my curiosity with a docent tour.
“Palmer Hayden’s work,” she explained, “was more traditional.
He didn’t go in for the abstract as much as some of the others did.”
“Hale Woodruff studied in Mexico with Diego Rivera. Taught at
NYU for decades, child. I’ll take you down to the Village one day. See
his old apartment. Introduce you to his family.”
“And these,” she pointed out a pair of bookends, “Countée com-
missioned Augusta Savage to create.” In Paris, the poet and the sculptor
socialized between 1928 and 1930. My great grandmother explained that,
although Savage had executed portrait busts of James Weldon Johnson
and W.E.B. Du Bois with characteristic skill, many of her works were
damaged, lost or simply destroyed because she couldn’t afford to have
the clay or plaster cast in bronze.
I stop short before an object, bright red, blue and black: “Circe
Turns a Companion of Odysseus into a Swine.” One of six closely su-
pervised screenprints from his 1977 Odysseus Series, signed, numbered
and custom-framed, it was given my great-grandmother as a present by
her loyal friend, and was on proud display in her Kip’s Bay apartment.
As clearly as I can sense the imagery of Jean Toomer’s sound-collages in
Cane, I could hear the collar-beads and bangles the Africanized sorceress’s

means when he writes, “All I really have to say is ‘dance’.” Circe’s arms

The Rite
of Spring; the right arm rises up above the altar where a skull’s displayed;
63
Conjure Women: Romare Bearden and the Stories Great-Grandmother Told
phobic serpents coil up the left; Circe summons forth spirits investing her
with the power to step un-imprisoned through the frame.
That,” my great-grandmother’s proud, ancestral voice proclaims,
startling me out of my trance, “is Romie.”
“One day,” the oracle continues, “you’ll meet his wife Nanette.”
Then, matter-of-factly, “Lives down there on Canal Street, near China-
town.”
* * *
What is it you see, asks Rachael Z. DeLue, in Romare Bearden’s
artwork? Why is it you just can’t stop looking? How is it they remain,
decades after his death, sources of what Wallace Stevens calls “imperish-
able bliss”?
 An American Odys-
sey: The Life and Work of Romare Bearden (2018), Robert G. O’Meally’s
Romare Bearden Reader gathers nearly three dozen previously uncollected
pieces, eight of them artist’s statements, book chapters, essays, journal
entries, art reviews and speeches by Bearden himself dating from the
mid-1930s to 1993. As a source of information about and insight into
Bearden’s various periods, styles and media, The Romare Bearden Reader
builds on foundations laid by Henri Ghent and Calvin Tomkins. This is
reinforced by biographers like Myron Schwartzman in Romare Bearden:
His Life and Art (1990) and Romare Bearden: Celebrating the Victory
(1999), as-told-to accounts of Bearden’s working methods that do for the
artist what Alex Haley does for Malcolm X in the Autobiography.
But the best guide on how to “read” a Bearden is Bearden. Gal-
lery-goers and museum-goers, even those intimately familiar with his
visuals, may not realize just how “literary” an artist Romie really was. His
writer friends—James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison, Albert Murray, poet-painter
Derek Walcott—admired the way he might refer to a sonnet by Drayton as
casually as he would to a painting by Titian. Bearden enjoyed browsing
bookstores with Murray, and amassed an impressive library of his own.
Too much the perfectionist to pursue writing as a mere hobby, Bearden
devoted Tuesdays and Thursdays to reading and research, spending as
much time in libraries and archives as he did in museums and galleries.
64 KEVIN BROWN
As a writer, Romare Bearden didn’t come from out of nowhere.
To put his writings in context, it helps to know when, where and why he
published them. His mother Bessye Bearden was a columnist and editor
for The Chicago Defender, part of a national network of black daily
newspapers like the Baltimore Afro-American (to which Romare later
contributed political cartoons) and the Pittsburgh Courier. During the
fat years of the Harlem Renaissance, c. 1920-1930, when Romare was
between the ages of 8 and 18, Bessye befriended black millionaire A’Le-
lia Walker. Walker owned a 34-room mansion in Upstate New York, in
Irvington-on-Hudson. That was her weekend getaway. For day-to-day
living, she preferred her Sugar Hill hideaway on Edgecombe Avenue. For
partying, Walker also had twin townhouses in Harlem. These she proposed
as a gathering place for ballet dancers, boxers, communist rabble-rousers,
mobsters, movie stars, scientists and social-climbing gold diggers. The
idea caught on, and Walker’s “at-homes” became a Wednesday night
institution. Part literary salon, part night club, the Dark Tower, as it
came to be known, was a place where, downstairs, guests could listen to
Bessie Smith, drink bootleg liquor, dance. Upstairs, in the library, they
could play bridge, comparing notes on literature and society with editors,
publishers and talent agents. Parties legendary even by the standards of
the Roaring 20s took place at the Dark Tower. And so it was that, on any
given Wednesday, Arna Bontemps, W.E.B. Du Bois, Rudolph (“Bud”)
Fisher, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Alain LeRoy Locke,
Richard Bruce Nugent, Wallace (“Wallie”) Thurman or Dorothy West
might be greeted by an African-American servant in a powdered wig and
classical Renaissance doublet in the marble entrance hall decorated with
Aubusson carpets and Louis XVI furniture. As New York host, A’Lelia
Walker was the glue that held the Harlem Renaissance together. Part of
her charm derived from the fact that she didn’t even pretend to like read-
ing, and was visibly bored by high-brow conversation. She had a smart
set of writer friends to do that kind of chore. What truly excited Walker
was collecting. She accumulated 600 volumes of limited editions bound
in Moroccan leather, reclining on custom-built shelves, and authored
by Balzac, Boccaccio, Casanova, Marcus Aurelius, Plato, Rabelais and
Rousseau. Walker collected books the way she collected royalty. If she
wanted to hear a little music on her 24-carat-gold grand piano, Walker
65
Conjure Women: Romare Bearden and the Stories Great-Grandmother Told
could simply invite George Gershwin over to play. Or Maurice Ravel, if
he happened to be in Harlem, then considered an overseas arrondissement
of Paris. No, Walker much preferred listening to live blues; or watching

     
Bessye Bearden no longer splurging to get their hair done in the stylish
salons where Walker made her millions. Walker went broke, and little by
little, the treasures of Villa Lewaro were auctioned off—most of them,
according to Bessye Bearden, for pennies on the dollar—some for as little
as $1.50.
Even during the Depression, when Bessye Bearden entertained
dignitaries in her parlor less often than she would have wished, President
Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration enabled young visual artists
like Romie to collaborate with literary artists in the way he would the rest
of his life. By age 23, Bearden had already assumed his rightful place in
what essayist Elizabeth Alexander calls a “literary continuum,” contrib-
uting—both “in print,” to quote W.E.B. Du Bois, “and in paint”—to “the
African-American critical enterprise.”
  Opportunity, the Urban League
publication for which Douglas had designed cover art in the mid-1920s.
From the publication of “The Negro Artist and Modern Art” (1934) to the
posthumously published children’s book Li’l Dan the Drummer Boy (2003),
Bearden’s writings are indeed preoccupied with centuries-old, purely
aesthetic questions of how two-dimensional media limited to horizontals
and verticals can suggest a third dimension without recourse to the illusion
of mechanical perspective or “mere photographic realism.” But in “The
Negro Artist and Modern Art” we also encounter the political Bearden—an
aspect of his art sometimes overshadowed by his connoisseurship, just as
Bearden’s reputation for sonorous chords of color, harmonious or disso-
nant, sometimes obscures what Mary Lee Corlett calls his “consummate
skills as a draftsman, accentuating both the delicacy and the powerful
simplicity of his lines.” When Bearden says, “[t]he Negro artist must
come to think of himself not primarily as a Negro . . . but [simply] as an
artist,” he echoes Cullen’s notion, criticized in an earlier manifesto “The
Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain” (1926), published in The Nation
by Langston Hughes, that the Negro poet must come to think of himself
not primarily as a Negro but simply as a poet.
66 KEVIN BROWN
Ralph Ellison recalls discovering Bearden during the mid-1930s,
when Social Realism dominated the art scene. Both artists came of age
between 1914 and 1935, between World War I and their respective studies


As a boy, Ellison had toyed with the alto sax. After leaving Tuskegee in
1936, he took a class with Harlem Renaissance sculptor Richmond Barthé,
and “developed a more than casual interest in the visual arts.” Similarly,
Bearden took a day job as social worker, and so came late to oils, think-
ing of himself as a painter rather than cartoonist only after mastering the

-
ested in using art as an instrument of social change.” Yet, even in those
early days, though “socially conscious and politically committed,” though
dedicated to discovering what Bearden calls a “useable Black heritage”
and Ellison calls “the relationship between our racial identity, our identity
as Americans, and our mission as [artists],” both artists were nevertheless
equally determined to avoid becoming either “effete exponents of ‘art for
art’s sake’ on the one hand,” or “political hacks on the other.”
Another thing the literary artist shares with the visual artist is
an aesthetic mirroring not only what O’Meally calls the “fragmentation”
of black identity in the United States but also “complex layeredness,” its
“refusal ever to be only one thing.” In “The Negro Artist’s Dilemma”
(1946), published three years after his mother’s sudden death from pneu-
monia, Bearden challenges the “privilege of the oppressor to depict the
oppressed.” He’d praised the way muralists like José Orozco, Diego Rivera
-
ertheless created highly original work made in North America and steeped
in themes like the Mexican Revolution. Why shouldn’t African-American

African sculpture, why shouldn’t Richmond Barthé study Saint-Gaudens?
Eventually, beautifully variegated strains of African, Asian and European

of classical Chinese calligraphy and Japanese portraiture to what, in The
Painter’s Mind (1969), Bearden called “the great classical periods during
the Tang, Ming and Sung dynasties” to the Ravenna mosaics—would
67
Conjure Women: Romare Bearden and the Stories Great-Grandmother Told
come together in the bright tesserae of a Bearden masterpiece like Quilting
Time (1986). Similarly, certain artistic, geographic, historical, linguistic,
political, psychological or sociological motifs from Chekhov, Dostoevsky,
Tolstoy and Turgenev successfully served as models for Ellison’s Invisible
Man (1952).
Co-authored with Murray, “Rectangular Structure in My Montage
Paintings” (1969) derives in part from Bearden’s 1968 interview with
curator Henri Ghent, and appeared the same year Bearden and Carl Holty
published The Painter’s Mind: A Study of the Relations of Structure and
Space in Painting. So, the exclusion from The Romare Bearden Reader of
perhaps duplicative and dauntingly technical material from The Painter’s
Mind may be intentional. However, O’Meally provides no explanation
for omitting some representative excerpt or other from Six Black Masters
of American Art (1972). Bearden was as catholic in his appreciation of
contemporary artists different from himself as he was of the Old Masters.
Both the “painter of the Cézannesque still life” and the “painter of the
Gauginesque nude,” both Loïs Mailou Jones (professor of design and
watercolor at Howard University when Toni Morrison was there minoring
in classics from 1949 to 1953) and children’s book illustrator Charles
Sebree (The Lost Zoo) as well as the Hale Woodruff of the “garish and
strident” Amistad Murals. In Six Black Masters, Bearden devotes entire
chapters both to predecessors like Augusta Savage or Horace Pippin—no
more “primitive,” Bearden argues, than the douanier Rousseau—as well
as to younger artists like Jacob Lawrence.
O’Meally’s survey of Romare Bearden as writer concludes with,
among others, an excerpt from the posthumous A History of African-Amer-
ican Artists: From 1792 to the Present (1993). Conceived as early as 1965
and written in collaboration with Harry Henderson, the book Bearden died

history’s neglect of African-Americans like Henry Ossawa Tanner—“a
better painter,” Bearden argues, “than Prendergast; especially in his late
paintings, the ones he did in the late ‘10s and ‘30s”.
68 KEVIN BROWN
* * *
As I said, writer Romare Bearden didn’t come from out of no-
where. Perhaps the Harlem Renaissance he literally came of age in didn’t

gathering spots like the Marshall Hotel on West 53rd Street to the Dark
Tower and other literary salons of the 1920s and 30s and so on to the jazz
clubs, recording studios and concert halls of 52nd Street during the 1940s
and 50s. Spirituals and ragtime evolved into blues. Blues evolved into
early jazz. Jazz evolved into big band swing. Swing evolved into bebop
and on into the Black Arts Movement. The Beats openly acknowledged
their debt to writers like Langston and Arna, who as they collaborated
on Poetry of the Negro were in turn discovering younger novelists, poets
and playwrights like Amiri Baraka, Ed Bullins, Ted Joans, Larry Neal,
Ishmael Reed and Alice Walker. So, to a very real extent the circle re-
mained unbroken as visual artists like Romare Bearden and Jacob Law-
rence (1917-2000), who in the early 40s had studios in the same building
as Claude McKay, continued active years after Ida Cullen-Cooper died.
The Harlem Renaissance had ceased to be an extant movement, but its
scattered remnants hadn’t ceased to be a community.
Institution-builders kept building. It took three years, but Ida
Cullen-Cooper successfully lobbied for the New York Public Library off
Lenox next to the Schomburg, adjacent to what had been the original
site of A’Lelia Walker’s Dark Tower, to be rededicated as the Countee
[sic] Cullen Branch. Public School 194, on 144th Street, was likewise
re-dedicated as the Countée Cullen School. Actively courted by archives,
libraries, museums and other institutions, Ida Mae transformed into the
kind of griot Henri Ghent and Calvin Tomkins portray Bearden himself

curators, receiving visits from scholars foreign and domestic. She came
into her own, took over the family business and remained active in the
cultural life of New York for the rest of her days—traveling, giving lectures
and readings of Countée’s work. From 1947 to 1986, she was the living
embodiment of a vanishing tradition.
Writers kept writing. Shortly after he and 3,000 other mourners
attended Countée’s memorial service, Richard Wright left Greenwich
69
Conjure Women: Romare Bearden and the Stories Great-Grandmother Told
Village for Paris, living the remainder of his days in exile. Jimmy Bald-
win, who’d studied French and Creative Writing under Countée at middle
school P.S. 139, followed in Wright’s footsteps two years later. The
larger-than-life character my great grandmother called “Zoe-rah” died
the year I was born. When I was in second or third grade, Jean Toomer
died, and the “prose oratorio” (Nathan Huggins‘ phrase) called Cane was
“rediscovered.” It sold all of 500 copies during the author’s lifetime,
but Arna admired its “fractured unities” so intensely that he archived for
the Fisk University Library every scrap of paper Toomer ever doodled
on—15 cartons worth. Alice Walker made pilgrimage to Zora’s grave
when I was a junior in high school. Langston, complaining he’d become
a de facto unpaid ambassador for the State Department, frittering away
his writing time entertaining authors like Wole Soyinka and Léopold
Senghor at Kennedy White House state dinners, wrote relentlessly till he
couldn’t write anymore. After 65 years of “squeezing life,” as Countée
put it, “like a lemon,” Langston taxied himself to a hospital, checked in
with severe abdominal pains, and died two weeks later. As his body was
wheeled into the crematorium, they chanted from “The Negro Speaks
of Rivers.” When I was a freshman in high school, Arna—who never
stopped publishing, books for children such as I’d been or young adult
biographies and histories for teens such as I now was—died of a heart
attack, aged 70, while working on a short-story collection.
Growing up when, where and how I did meant two things. In
late 1960s and mid 1970s San Francisco and its Silicon Valley suburbs,
it meant there were black role models in this boy’s life, Romare Bearden
being just one of many. Which meant that, unlike Dorothy West half a
century earlier, I never wanted to become the “great Negro writer” she
eventually became in works like “Elephant’s Dance: A Memoir of Wallace
Thurman.” But I could relate to Countée’s just wanting to be a poet, not
“a Negro poet.” I read all kinds of books and authors, hundreds of them:
    
authors; black women writers; Dead White Males; writers ranging from
Henry Adams to Marguerite Yourcenar. More than once, I read Ellison’s

and documentaries. But I spent most of my time lugging around a crate

70 KEVIN BROWN
at Mark Rothko or Clyfford Still at the De Young and Legion of Honor
museums.
 
1960. His friend Ida Cullen-Cooper wintered in St. Croix. With advanc-
ing age, each suffered during New York cold snaps, Ida from Reynaud’s
disease, and Romie from a stiff back and aching joints. When he retired
from his day job, Romie and Nanette began spending each February
through March on Dutch/French island of St. Martin, where his watercol-
ors lay drying in the sun. By the time I entered high school, he’d begun
making artwork from cut-outs of pre-painted construction-paper, cobalts
and clarets, hues more saturated than his earlier pastels. The small but
-
tors since the 1930s grew to the point where in the early 1970s Bearden
  
Guggenheim fellowship; a solo retrospective at the Museum of Modern
Art; election to the National Institute of Arts and Letters. Bearden was
now a full-time painter with a winter home in the Dutch-French Caribbean,
where he and his wife Nanette could escape the long New York winters.

the time I graduated high school, printmaking became one of the ways in
which Bearden was constantly reinventing his visual vocabulary.
 
them, comprising the Odysseus collages, some large-scale and others
intimate, bear titles like “Cattle of the Sun,” “Home to Ithaca,” “Odys-
seus Leaves,” “Poseidon,” “The Sea Nymph,” “Siren’s Song,” and “Troy
Burning.” Stark yet vibrantly saturated with color, sinuously geometric,
they sing a Trojan War hero’s roots, his departure, his wanderings, his
Odysseus
Series illustrates the conquest of the Mediterranean by successive waves
of African, European and Semitic peoples, the great migrations, the trade
routes and civilizations. The collages are possessed of both timelessness
and dignity, convey both action and repose. Even as a young writer in
    
when he said the same year that, in Bearden, he’d found an artistic
mentor, and aspired to write plays the equal of Bearden’s images, just as
Bearden himself knew he aspired to make images emulating the rhythms
71
Conjure Women: Romare Bearden and the Stories Great-Grandmother Told
he heard between the notes of Earl (“Fatha”) Hines’ piano. I aspired to
write something, but had no more idea what to write than Romie, in the
very early 1940s, knew whom to paint. I only knew I wanted to make
writings that combine precise amplitudes, simple sonorities, and vivid
clarities the way Bearden’s Odysseus collages do.
For Romie’s friend Ida, New York energy had been electrifying in
the 1930s. By the time I moved there in 1985, she was tired of the place:
tired of outrageous supermarket prices; tired of cultural events; tired of her
part-time housekeeper’s foolish chatter. She was tired of Life. She loved
Romie and all her other friends, but they were dying off, like Owen Dodson.
85 years old, Ida Cullen-Cooper had cultural capital but low energy. 24
years young, I had high energy but no capital. In her shrewdly intuitive
way, she saw my ambition for what it was: incorrigible; unagented. Her
arthritis smelled like liniment. Ida Cullen-Cooper needed a fresh set of
eyes and legs to help with all the unglamorous and never-ending chores
entailed in tending a literary estate—copyrights, correspondence, reprints,
theatrical productions, the preservation, orderly disposition and archiving
of cultural artifacts and scholarly materials with various institutional col-
lections. For almost a year between June 1985 and May 1986, we forged
a tenuous alliance.
With no ceremony or basic training and only the briefest of ori-
entations, I was put to work. One of my innumerable duties was sorting
and opening mail.
An annuity statement grabbed her attention.
“Don’t open that!”
She swiped it from my hand.
“Matter of fact, I want you to set up a meeting with Rob Bone.
Trusts & Estates attorney, don’t you know. Have him draw up a codicil.
Gonna leave you something in my will.”
Ida Cullen-Cooper was in pain. I fetched a nitroglycerine tablet.
Palms upturned, she shooed me out the door.
“Next time you come, bring me a little groceries. From Gristedes.”
I left Kips Bay, headed home to Harlem, and never saw Ida Mae
again.
The trust attorney handed me two things on May 6, 1986: a
check worth one year’s rent on a studio down the Lower East Side; and
a copy of the New York Times.
72 KEVIN BROWN
“Ida Cullen Cooper, who spent years traveling the country to keep
alive the work of her late husband, the poet Countee Cullen, died of a heart
attack Saturday at her home on the East Side of Manhattan. She was 86
years old. She also was active in the civic life of her neighborhood and the
cultural life of Harlem, where a branch of the New York Public Library,
at 104 West 136th Street near Lenox Avenue, bears the poet’s name. Mr.
Cullen, who died in 1946 at the age of 42, was an important writer of the
Harlem Renaissance in the 20’s. Mrs. Cooper, a native of Tulsa, Okla.,
was married to the poet in 1940. In 1953, Mrs. Cooper married Robert L.
Cooper, who was widely known for his work with troubled youths. Mr.
Cooper died in 1966. Survivors include a daughter, Norma Nimmons; a
brother, Harry D. Roberson; a sister, Alice Mae Woods; a granddaughter,
and a great-grandson.”
Without doubt, he’d still be remembered today, even without her
intervention, but it’s safer to say Ida Mae Roberson’s obituary wouldn’t

Countée Cullen. Regardless, I owe my very existence to her as a matter of
biological fact. And I can’t imagine sustaining a literary life grounded in
reality without the example of their life together. We remain—Countée, Ida
Cullen-Cooper and I, in some cases by blood, in other cases by marriage
but in any case by shared history and tradition—a family, inseparable.
“These,” Zora said, “are my people.” At the peak of his poetic powers,
Countée’d won more prizes at a younger age than any other writer of the
Harlem Renaissance, and seemed to embody what Gerald Early called
“many of the hopes, aspirations, and maturing expressive possibilities of
his people”—all 10,000,000 of them. He was the movement’s poster boy.
It was no long-shot I would end up writing about him.
Ellison delivered Romare Bearden’s eulogy in April 1988 to the
hundreds gathered at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. More than
a quarter-century after his death from bone cancer, Bearden’s art still
convincingly transmutes “the idiomatic particulars of Afro-American
experience” into what Albert Murray calls “aesthetic statements of uni-
versal relevance and appeal,” and so it comes as no surprise his “hugely


will never stop writing about.
73
Conjure Women: Romare Bearden and the Stories Great-Grandmother Told
In An American Odyssey, Schmidt-Campbell notes that Bearden
        
Conjur Women; religious icons of mother and child; the Virgin Mary
with annunciate angel; women engaging in the everyday routine rituals
of their lives; sensuous nudes, lounging and bathing; young women with
older women; women with men or alone.” I thought I’d found my subject
when, as a biographical portraitist born 14 years after Countée Cullen died,

the shock of encountering “Circe.” But my true subject turned out to be a
group portrait with Ida Mommy’s oral history narratives at its center and
myself, as participant-observer, hovering about the periphery. John Edgar
Wideman writes that Bearden’s collages remind you of the way women

She crams everything, everyone, everywhere into the present, into words
intimate and immediate as the images of a Bearden painting. When she’s
going good [she] manages to crowd lots and lots of stuff into a space that

it.” The grain of Ida’s voice, to borrow Eudora Welty’s phrase, contributed
immeasurably to my own “sensory education.” Preserving the folklore
and traditions of the Harlem Renaissance was essential to the woman Ida
Cullen-Cooper became, just as preserving those of the Deep South was
for Zora. She was every bit as ambitious as Countée, as controlling as
Walter White, as indefatigable as Alain Locke, as intelligent as Dorothy
West, as shrewd as Charles S. Johnson, and had as acute a sense of his-
torical mission as Arna. Oral history wasn’t merely a component of Ida
Cullen-Cooper’s character; Ida Cullen-Cooper was the living portrait of
an oral historian. “Orality,” my “showing” of her “telling,” had to play
as much a part in the narrative as her stories themselves.
The movement we know as the Harlem Renaissance was, like
all communities, a factious social network with its natural fair share of

paranoia, resentments and suspicion, reasonable and otherwise. “Charac-
ters” there was no need to invent: a fast-talking, night-clubbing, blond-
haired, blue-eyed black man called Walter White; a writer, late resident,
after an adventurous life lived collecting folk songs, voodoo spells and
folk dances, of the Garden of Heavenly Rest, buried open casket, in a pink
74 KEVIN BROWN
nightgown and fuzzy slippers. There was a scene-stealing cast of dozens,
some authors of memoirs of their own, others subjects of multi-tome bi-
ographies themselves. There were operatic plots, scenes and situations so
melodramatic to begin with that it would be tacky to embellish them. But
what did “Circe” and the Odysseus collages, what did the art of a story-
teller like Bearden have to teach an aspiring portraitist? How, in a hybrid
of portraiture and self-portraiture combining poetry and fact, humor and
pathos, exposition and anecdote such as the New Journalists were creating
when I started publishing around 1977, how in a character-driven narrative
taught as a novella yet reliable as a fact-checked, long-form investigative
piece, how to tell a within the traditional coming-of-age framework the
story of one writer’s quest for a personal version of a “useable past,” how
tell the story of a young writer learning to become a storyteller? What
were the secrets of narrative propulsion, of maximizing human interest,
of reproducing life upon the page? What, exactly, was the secret of those
“right relations” among narrative elements in transition—character;
description; dialogue; plot; point of view; scenes; storylines; and tone—
Turgenev speaks of? How to tell a good story well? How had Bearden
done it? The raw material lay all about me. All I had to do was connect
the dots.
   
and achievements do. To do him justice, I needed to know what Bearden
was like not as a monument but as a man. But in my mind as on my
great-grandmother’s wall in Kip’s Bay, Bearden’s work was frozen in
time as an historical artifact, not an evolutionary process. Until I became
a working writer myself, until the challenges of sustaining creativity into
middle age became real to me, I simply had no way of imagining Romie
as a struggling artist, forced to work 9 to 5 and paint from 6 to 9, averag-
ing at best a couple hours concentrated work on any given weekday. Ida
Cullen-Cooper told me many things--secrets, lies. She never lived to tell
me about the Siren’s Songs, about the hazards and temptations, the red
herrings, the time frittered away in well-intentioned but ultimately fruitless
gatherings; the stressors and anxieties self-medicated with potentially fatal
mixtures of nicotine, prescription medications and alcohol; the rejections;
the self-deceptions; the endless hours of research, drafting, revision
and marketing on projects that ultimately go nowhere; the manuscripts
75
Conjure Women: Romare Bearden and the Stories Great-Grandmother Told
irretrievably lost—all the jottings in the margins of a life as opposed to
   

social obligations, or permanent in the form of death.
I didn’t inherit “Circe.” Ida Cullen-Cooper was far too savvy
to entrust a work of art like that to a 25-year-old scraping by. Perhaps
   
it’s the subjectivity, selectivity and distortions of memory—mine, hers,
others’—and memory’s role in shaping our identity. Whatever the case,
Circe’s image proved to be precisely the right catalyst at that particular
juncture of time, place or readiness. The money was only an honorarium.
My great-grandmother’s real endowment was this trove of material.
Salmagundi Magazine
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ResearchGate has not been able to resolve any citations for this publication.
His articles, essay-reviews, interviews and translations have appeared in American Book Review, The Brooklyn Rail, Fiction International, The Georgia Review, The Nation, The Threepenny Review, Times Literary Supplement
  • American Desk Reference
American Desk Reference. His articles, essay-reviews, interviews and translations have appeared in American Book Review, The Brooklyn Rail, Fiction International, The Georgia Review, The Nation, The Threepenny Review, Times Literary Supplement, Washington Post Bookworld, among others.