Looking at Art and Racism: Changing people's belief of the world using Art, Series One Day Six
Empress of the Blues by Romaire Bearden
Day 6, Empress of the Blues by Romaine Bearden
Romaire Bearden was known as "Romie " to his friends and family. He was born in Charlotte North
Carolina in 1912 but moved when he was young to Harlem NY. His parents were politically active and
W.E.B. Du Bois, Langston Hughes, Duke Ellington, and Romie's cousin Charles Alston were among the
artists and activists that visited the Bearden's home.
It was the time of the Harlem Renaissance, a time of great promise after the Great Migration from the
south (which occurred from 1916-1970. It was a time where artists encouraged each other. A time when
even though African Americans still struggled to have their work shown in galleries because of racism
and had to have a fulltime (often menial) job to support their art. It was a time they believed in
themselves and each other and the possibility of change. It was sweet when listening to Faith Ringgold
last night to hear her too, call Bearden, "Romie", for through she was born eighteen years after Bearden,
they moved in the same circles. In Faith Ringgold's quilt painting "The Harlem Renaissance dinner party
"you see the embarrassed child, Faith ( in the front left-hand corner at such a dinner party) cringing as
her, fashion designer mother shows off her latest creation to Langston Hughes W.E.B Du Bois and others.
Bearden lapped up this atmosphere! He was a talented musician as well as an artist and had to choose
which path to take. He even wrote a song called " Sea Breeze " which became a hit.
R Romaire Bearden's funeral procession
He first learned to draw as a child from a sickly friend called "Eugene" who made drawings (on paper
bags) of the inside of houses and the activities within each room. Bearden met Eugene on one of many
visits to Pittsburgh where his grandmother lived. Eugene taught him all he could until he died, not long
after they had met. Bearden was mainly self-taught. He did study at Lincoln, Boston, and New York
Universities, but most of what you see in his paintings come from, his heart.
Bearden started as a painter but then moved into collage, as his main medium. He saw collage as a visual
equivalent to music. He uses it in the "Empress of the Blues. he also uses in this work, two sets of
complementary colors: purple and yellow, and red and green to give drama to the piece and make the
piece sing. The angle of the horn players and his use of stylized shapes gives movement and action to the
piece. Bearden wanted to show " The life of my people as I know it."He knew the ingenuity many blacks
used to survive, he wanted to capture this "making a way out of no way" which he saw also in the Blues,
in Spirituals, and in Jazz. His collages were made up of cut-up magazines, cut-up paintings, or whatever
was at hand. His paintings show the" very great sense of self" that Hale Woodruff was so impressed by
and found in African art.
So African Americans saw in the North a hope, a chance of rising up above segregation. By the 1960's it
became clear that African Americans still had a lot to fight for in terms of equality and although major
steps were taken to change this, major steps still need to occur.
In 1974, Bearden looks back to his childhood, to a time of hope for the future. In listening to Faith
Ringgold last night, her hope is now! Throughout her career, she has documented the ongoing fight for
African Americans to truly achieve equality, and even now at 89, she ponders what statement she can
make of and for today. Her life has been devoted to activism and using her art to find a new way.
This fight is hard, it will not happen overnight, it requires a whole new way of thinking for most white
Americans. It requires soul searching and honesty that is going to be uncomfortable at times. But we
have started the journey and are finally, I believe heading in the right direction. We can not get distracted
or complacent on this journey, this time. It is not a fight by one race for equality, but a fight by the whole
race to recognize they/we are not complete without it. Faith Ringgold uses the symbol of the little
African American girl flying to freedom. It can no longer be a dream or hope, we all need to take every
step we can to make it a reality!