On Romare Bearden, The Odyssey and the (Literal) Erasure of Black Women

Today I saw Renisha McBride trending on Twitter. I have mixed feelings about it. As someone (I forget who) said, 40% of Twitter users are Black, so Black Twitter is Twitter. Seeing McBride’s name trend told me that Black people were discussing her. However, the mixed feelings come with the reason her name is on the lips of Black people in social networks. We were all horrified to learn of her murder a few days ago and now our voices are finally being heard on the issue.

This comes on the heels of some revelations in a local incident concerning an 18-year-old Black girl name Aprina Paul who went missing from her Fitchburg home. It appears her remains have been found on the property of a 29-year-old white Evansville man named Nathan Middleton. My suspicions is that he is involved in foul play, but I don’t know the specifics of the case. I also unfortunately missed a vigil in Aprina’s honor Wednesday night, but I had to work.

With all this going on around me, I decided to attend a poetry reading based on the works of Romare Bearden and get myself out of the lethargy that threatened to set in during the day. I found the museum where the reading was to be held and staked out a spot. The program started promptly at seven and I observed the 10 featured poets of the evening: three white men, three white women, three Black women and one Black man. Apparently, their poetry was a response to the entire exhibit, Romare Bearden: A Black Odyssey, or they were inspired by one or two paintings when they wrote their poetry.

Although I mostly enjoyed the readings, I was utterly fascinated by who saw what. Both the first readers were Black women. Their work not only addressed Bearden’s blackness and his work, but they also incorporated the theme of what home meant to themselves and to Bearden. They managed to make the work personal to themselves while also acknowledging a world of Black men from “Barack Obama to Trayvon Martin.”

I can’t help but compare their work to two of the white men who read. Their work focused only on The Odyssey aspect of Bearden’s work. There was no exploration of Bearden’s identity or what may have inspired him with this series of paintings. They focused on Odysseus, the myth and the sea. I also think of one of the white women who also focused on her reaction to a painting and how it drew her in. Again, no discussion of Bearden or what the work may have meant to him and his critiques as a Black man in America.

And yet, their works were not what got my mind to thinking about how each of the poets reflected how they see the world. Two white women who ended up going back to back really struck a nerve as I listened. The first saw Bearden’s work and immediately wondered what were the (white) women doing during the war Odysseus fought with the men. The focus of her poem: Penelope. She felt compelled to bring Penelope into the narrative because she did not see herself reflected in Bearden’s work. The white woman who came after her: Penelope and Circe. Interestingly, this woman decided to envision a conversation between Penelope and Bearden’s wife Annette, but in her own words, she decided not to focus much on Annette’s voice because she didn’t want Annette’s real life to get in the way of her poem.

Before I get into that statement, I want to discuss the remaining poets. The last Black woman to read also mentioned Annette. Even though Annette was not the focus of the poem, the poet did consider how Annette must have watched her husband work and how she fit into the trajectory of Bearden’s life. Annette isn’t used as a prop to make a point about faux sisterhood in an attempt to put white and Black women on an equal plane while dismissing black women’s experiences. She has an effect on her husband.

This leads me to the last white man to read that night. His work focused more on a patchwork odyssey that was not only inspired by the paintings but also a lecture connecting Bearden with a writer and musician (I believe Coltrane and Morrison but I could be mistaken because I don’t remember). His theme drew connections among Bearden, The Odyssey and art without dismissing Bearden from the theme.

However, I have to disclose that my favorite poem of the evening belonged to the sole Black man on the program, not just because of the content of his poem but also because he performed it as a spoken word poet and not just a reading. In explaining his poem, he mentions the Lakota belief that Black people come from the water, so he saw Poseidon as Black man at his strongest, Cyclops as black man at his weakest and Odysseus as everything in between. Of course, his poem drew connections between himself and Bearden as a Black man in America.

Yet, by the time the program was over, I learned more about the poets rather than about Bearden or The Odyssey. Instead of taking my mind off Renisha McBride and Aprina Paul, I thought more strongly about them. You see, in my mind, artists are supposed to be on a higher plane of consciousness than the rest of us. I believe true genius starts from within but eventually can see beyond itself to a reality that exists beyond itself. However, in attending the poetry reading, I still see that artist or not, most of us will never see existence that we feel is irrelevant to our own lives.

I think about the white woman who with no critique decided she wanted to dismiss Annette Bearden because she didn’t want this woman’s “real life” to get in the way of her poem. That one statement stood out most to me as I am looking at Black people mourn the life of another Black girl falling victim to a crime and others are looking for answers to explain why she deserved to be killed. I am thinking about a Black girl missing for more than a week with no national media attention and now all her family have are her remains and a very strong possibility that the white man who may have killed her will never see justice.

Marissa Alexander sits in jail for defending her life. CeCe McDonald sits in jail for defending her life. Rekia Boyd is dead at 22. Ayanna Stanley-Jones is dead at eight. They are part of a long list of Black women and girls whose “real lives” get in the way of ours. Many Black women are going above and beyond to make sure these women and girls do not get erased. They have found social media useful in helping raise awareness and keep these women and girls from disappearing. They did it this week with Renisha McBride. They remind us that these women’s and girls’ “real lives” matter. They are the only thing keeping me from sitting in a corner and rocking back and forth in tears some days. They respond immediately and purposefully. And I love them for it.

I keep getting reminders that Black women are largely the only ones who care about Black women. It takes so much for anyone else to even see us as real people with real feelings, real pain, real pleasure, real lives. It breaks my heart that not only do they not see us as people, but they also just do not see us.

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