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The Contradictions of Howard Weeden's Art and Poetry

Updated on November 24, 2012

I recently came across a book of poetry at my local library containing the work of Howard Weeden, painter and poet. What a curious story I discovered in it. A woman with a man's name who grew up around house slaves and lived through the Civil War during her mid to late teens who in time grew to specialize in painting African American portraits and write poems in their dialect. The portraits are beautiful and full of character, yet a conservative strain runs through both the portraits and the poems. She asks her subjects to dress in pre-Civil War garb. She paints wonderful individual faces that are perpetually wearing the same bandanna, the same dress, and the same kerchief settled at the base of the neck, creating a short triangle down the back. They are homogenized except for their faces.

I could see that homogenizing as an artistic device to make one ignore the clothing and focus on the human being except that in one of the poems Weeden allows one of her subjects to criticize her technique:

Aunt Judy and the Painter

I can't allow my picture took
De way you wants to draw--
A-leavin' off my Freedom-look
For fashions 'fore de war.

You'd have my dress, you say, "be plain
Of dat dull quiet blue,
Dat caught from years of sun and rain,
It's tender faded hue."

An' on my "head a turban red
Word wid a stately grace--"
"To harmonize--" I think you said,
"Wid my rich, dark brown face."

No, Lord! my picture can't be caught
By man wid no sich manners
Dat's 'zactly why de war was fought--
To end dem same bandannas!

This marvelous poem reveals the ugly underbelly of Weeden's project, a desire to preserve and sentimentalize the period of slavery. Yet she has enough integrity to let this truth-teller "Aunt Judy" object. I believe Weeden, though guilty of an ulterior motive, was an oral historian, or simply a historian, at heart. She wanted to preserve the faces, revealing faces, of people of that time and their voices and attitudes. However, she wanted to record something gone at the time she began her project, in particular the emotional attachment that developed between slave and master when the two were long in close proximity. It doesn't seem to occur to Weeden that her subjects might not all be truth-telling "Aunt" Judys but more likely people telling her what they know she wants to hear, being polite.

How believable is this coming from a slave:

From "Homesick,":

I long to see a cotton field
Once more before I go
All hot an' splendid, roll its miles
Of sunny summer snow!

More believable is:

Resting

No--slavery wasn't bad enough
To make my memory fret,
'Twas only dat I was so drove
I ain't got rested yet.

So when I hears you talk of heaben
A' wings--an' flyin' 'round--
I sighs an' says, "If hit suits God,
I'll take heaben sittin' down."

Many of the poems are wry in this way, others are deeply poignant.

Too Late

Yes, Master, dat's jes what I think:
Dat Freedom is first rate.
I only means to say it came
For some of us too late!

De days dat you call "slavery days"
Seemed happy ones, you see,
Becase I was so young an' gay
An' Dinah was wid me.

But jes' as Freedom come along
My Dinah up an' died;
And I got ol' an' couldn't learn
De new ways, dough I tried.

So when dey talks 'bout being free,
An' I don't seem to heed 'em
You may jes' know my heart's brimful
An' tears has drownded freedom!

I have not made a study of the course of racism and the many forms it takes. I'm sure Howard Weeden was racist simply because the society in which she lived was based on it, just as I'm sure I haven't escaped some of its stereotypes, despite believing it's wrong, because I grew up in a society that still isn't free of racism. However, Weeden's poetry attempts to portray some of the complexity of human relations. She reveals the powerful effects of close association between master and slave, but she rarely engages the destructive influence either of wielding power over another or of being prevented from pursuing one's own course in life. She every sees everything in tones of benevolence.

One relationship she returns to again and again is that of Mammy and child. Again and again she works to turn Mammies into religious icons. In "Eventide," Mammy leaps far beyond an idealization of motherhood into an expression of eternity.

A child all wearied with its day
Of laughter, tears, and play,
Is gathered, 'gainst its will, to rest
At eve on Mammy's breast.
She bends above him, dark and calm,
And, tender as a psalm,
She lays a long kiss on his lips,
Till in that soft eclipse
He melts away to sweet release
And sleeps in smiling peace.
Some day I, too, shall go to rest
Upon a kind Dark Breast,
And feel my soul slip through a kiss
As dark and kind--as this!

I find this poem beautiful but also a bizarre twist in which the role of slave and the skin color of the slave, the very thing associated with its supposedly low nature, is being deified. Mammy here becomes much like the Hindu Kali (in my admittedly simplistic understanding of her) representing both life and death. Still, being deified is itself dehumanizing. It obscures the pain of nursing others' children while having no control over the fate of your own.

The book I picked up at the local library, Shadows on the Walls, gives faces and voices to people who usually were kept illiterate. We can't know what record they would have left of themselves if they possessed the ability to write in peace and safety. Howard Weeden's tribute to them, and I do believe it's intended as a tribute, is skewed, not only as all personal accounts are skewed but also because of her position in that society. Yet it's still worthwhile reading. Some of the individuals become obscured by their roles, such as the Mammies. But it's a book of people full of grief and humor and in Weeden's world we all meet on even ground after death.

The Old Boatman

I changed my name, when I got free,
To "Mister" like the res',
But now dat I am going Home,
I likes de ol' name bes'.

Sweet voices callin' "Uncle Rome,"
Seem ringin' in my ears;
An' swearin' sort o' sociable,
Ol' Master's voice I hears.

De way he used to call his boat,
Across de river: "Rome!
You damn ol' nigger, come an' bring
Dat boat, an' row me home!"

He's passed Heaven's River now, an' soon
He'll call across its foam:
"You, Rome, you damn ol' nigger, loose
Your boat, an' come on Home!"

I'm very interested in hearing what other people think of the poems I've included here or any others you've read of Howard Weeden's. Her portraits are fabulous and it's unfortunate that they're not readily available on the web. Her poems are of a lesser quality but do make a fascinating record, however flawed, of her own perspective on her times as well as that of others.

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