Posts Tagged ‘African American’

What did you talk about around the table on Thanksgiving?
Predictions were that current elections and the possibility of war would be top topics. After the sumptuous meal, for the fortunate ones, the grown-up table talk increases. 
We were among guests who shared personal experiences, opinions, and concerns. A small group of adults who spanned five generations. Our common characteristics: African American. We were all employed. (The most senior are employed at staying well and alive.) We shared our middle class-ness, regardless of the path to arrive there. Each person speaking from their own generation: spokes in a wheel.
I have been trying to find symbols that represent what was most important, and disturbing. Were I a composer, I think I would make music. A better writer, perhaps a pamphlet of opinion, a summary and possible conclusions. I might save characterization for a future novel. 
But I am primarily a visual artist. One who usually thinks content before making art. I want symbols where there were no cymbals at the table. The words radiated out from the heat off the sun and cooled as they were politely spoken. Drawn childlike. At the center, each of us spoke from the core of hurts, large, small, deep. Too painful to admit. Lava-like flowing on the outside of a hardened inner core. Too painful to go deeply.
Perhaps, a ball of twine wrapped around a stone. Sometimes a ribbon of velvet and silk, sometimes the roughened rope.

Perhaps a basket made by gichee mothers or for Moses. Safe passage except for a tiny hole. 
Perhaps, a fire burned down to ashes and then getting new life, reigniting. How do you express the cycles of history? The collective rebellions shut down by guns? The passiveness of fear? Not telling our children the full extent of the law and its historic significance? Jacob Lawrence painted the tables but could not record the talk around it. Karin Walker’s silhouettes are just eye candy without the words behind them. 
Or, the broken chains. We are left with the comfort meal, some understanding of how we are all connected but no workable solution.


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The Texas News

Prairie View University is in the news because the young woman, a 2009 graduate, was to begin work there. It is one of the historic Black colleges and my family had many experiences working there.

I have learned the outlines of my history by living with many parts of my family and more recent genealogy searches. The internet has been wonderful in putting bones on family lore. It has answered questions I did not think to ask.

My grandmother taught in high schools and colleges. Prairie View was one. Annie Talbot Strickland, was born in Holly Springs, MS. Shewas an early graduate of Rust College. We believe the education of Annie and three other children was paid for by their father, a slave owner. She married my grandfather after they both graduated. At 18 she was listed on the census as a school teacher. He was also a teacher and a census enumerator. (It is so exciting to see how many people you may know who worked on the census. And you see the handwriting of the enumerators).

I do not know what years she was at Prairie View, then a college. I do know she was in Waco, TX when my mother was born in 1890.) Family lore is that her girls never attended school . They were educated by attending classes in the colleges where Annie was teaching. My uncle was too young and might have been left at home. Where was that?

All of the women in the family were teachers. My grandmother’s youngest sister (and cousins) taught at Rust. Aunt Addie’s youngest daughter married a man named Perkins. He was the groundskeeper at Prairie View for many years. Victor also owned the Houston bus station until she retired. (My mother was teaching school in Houston when she was introduced to my father, a soldier at Camp Logan).

Whenever I read about these places, I realize there is more to be done to trace my family’s history. And today I wonder how difficult would it have been to travel so far? How could she have managed two girls in new situations? And she also had her mother to care for. Grancy, a former slave, lived to be 100. College campuses are often oases of protection, but was she ever in danger? In Texas?

Some Resources:
-Ida B Wells, a classmate. Mentioned Velma, my mother in her diary. (See Ida: A Sword Among Lions, Paula J. Giddings)
-Meharry Medical College Archives (online and college)
-Prairie View A & M University
-Land grant colleges in Southern states
-AME church and freedmen’s schools

Sent from my iPad

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Newspaper format from website

Newspaper format from website

The online source for creating your own newspaper clipping is The Newspaper Clipping Generator




I did not record the attempt to view the art at the gallery mentioned in the newspaper. It dd not say a private showing or Opening. We took the bus going to the address and when we were ready to get off, the driver said we could not enter the grounds. Facing us was an enormous wrought iron gate, locked. It did seem strange that the mention in the one newspaper did not mention that the general public would not be welcomed.

We did pass by Miss Olive’s Guest House. A lady was sweeping the dirt front yard and the house was painted purple.


Merry Christmas and Happy New Year

from my family to yours.





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Nassau Thanksgiving 1979


Wrote a long letter about the trip and leaving the kids with new friends. The beach cut short by a downpour. We ran for cover. It was a quiet time to paint two large watercolors on Crescent board. This winter we will use them to prove we were here.


We went to Le Cabaret and found a long line. Many of the group played the slots while waiting for the doors to open.

We were seated randomly by the Maitre d’.Front row table at the stage. Randomly worked in such a way that all of those seated were the only Blacks in the room other than the employees.  One couple was a retired security officer at the casino and his wife. He explained that the Bahamians who worked in the casinos were not permitted to spend their money there.

Also wages were so low that few could come there anyway. The other couples were African-Americans on vacation. It was a long but interesting show.

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Nassau - 1970

Nassau – 1970


Flight from Nashville to Miami on Sat, Nov 17. 1979 on Republic Airlines. Eventful only because on it left at 7:30 a.m. John bought more film and I looked at fruit to send – typical tourists – until we arrived at Eastern Airlines – to learn I “do not have a birth certificate or voters registration card, needed to re enter USA.”

We were told to go to the cigarette shop for an affidavit. The girl was off duty. See ‘Frank’ in the main shop on Concourse D. Frank was off. Get a notary in the hotel, a part of airport….7th floor, door 2, wait, pay $2.

Out of breath! We return, fill out a Bahama Entry card. We make the plane because it was delayed. One person too many. Someone takes the $39 and we are in the air. We barely had time to drink the apple juice before we land 45 minutes later. No radar so we were in a holding pattern before beautiful Nassau.

Long immigration lines! I select the one with the most problems. We are entertained by a Davy Dicks Trio playing native music. The affidavit is not accepted but drivers license gets me in. Handsome officer laughs at me being ripped off.


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Bettye W. Harwell

Drawing using pencils, metallic silver on toned and printed paper
Cropped image scanned onto white background. My son (though he would deny it.)

Today, I was once again, trying to organize paper, just paper.  I am ready to write. I tell myself over and over, I will write today.

Today as I was sorting to gather all of the last 2 years of research  on my latest women series (more to come), I kept finding jottings and sketches and ephemera. Ephemera includes articles , photos, preliminary and just-because sketches.

This sketch is one of the few efforts to record my boys. Their personalities escape me visually. The girls I know visceral. Been there. Done that.

I thought today, this is not bad in capturing him or someone like him. A subject can see his/her  own image interpreted by the artist, and deny any relationship. Which is OK. Often the person grows into the painting. Sometimes they are so familiar with their faces in the mirror, reversed that they cannot imagine another angle.

I have done self-portraits, precariously clinging on the bathroom face bowl while checking the mirror. Who is that old lady and why is she staring at me? Happy Halloween.

I am researching an artist of mixed race, dating 1800s. One critic of her work describes her as having white features from the eyes up, and signs of her other parentage by her thick lips and coffee-colored skin.  The comments are from another long-gone era but echo today. This gifted lady was reduced by this critic to her ethnicity and not her talent. (Fortunately she received fame and some fortune with her talent.)

Who knew?

With all of the tools we have for organization, it is still difficult to organize paper. What if you throw away something you will need? Once the piles are made, then what? My papers are all sizes, all subjects, all precious. I find at the mid-pont, that I cannot remember which pile is for what. And today, I took this sketch to the computer to share with you as a way of preserving it.

Did you know?

I have been a sometime blogger for a long time. Last year I sold one of the women series  (Rosa Bonheur).  I have been working on these paintings for nearly three years. Selling one put a lot of pressure on me to determine what the exit strategy would be to complete the series.

I decided that for an exhibit, 30 paintings would be the magic number. So I have been for months  selecting the last ones. Every time I counted, the number to-do seemed to expand. Now I am up to choosing the final two. My list of good choices has grown beyond any definite closing number. I am committed to 30 or maybe 31 because of the sale. Pretty sneaky, I say.

Those of you who show and sell your work will understand that just finishing the work is not the end. Documentation, promotion, framing, if paintings, etc. Where was that business plan, carefully written last year?  I know that my iPad chews up the very data I have stored.

Getting organized

1. Put all of the pertinent files in one place.

2. Keep your reference material close at hand. I have accumulated, books, articles and online information.

3. Make a format that will set the style for each painting. Later you can adapt for promotional requirements.

4. Have that place where you can think and write which has lights, water and a way of telling time.

5. Take a break periodically whether you want to stop or not.

6. Do not think and write. Write and then come back to edit. If you know something is not accurate, mark it, write a question, or in some way leave yourself a note.

7. When you are certain, ask someone to read it, read it aloud to yourself or someone else, tape it and play it back. The flow will not show up at first.

Now, if I can just follow my own suggestions…and file those papers off the floor.


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The child is the future and hope.

The child is the future and hope.


The theories about successful aging include keeping one’s mind active. This seems especially important to early retirees and elderly seniors. A whole generation of nearly 62 year olds has either stepped off the merry-go-round or been let go from employment.

The flow of life is a series of ups and downs. Who says the postwar 50s were a lull? Now, I feel for the people who have jobs and can no longer count on employment. Recently, a friend said her 10-year-old niece needed to interview someone who had lived in the 30s. Looking around the table, I was IT. I did not do the interview, but it made me think.

What were the adjustments made in my family to the depression? My father had provided a comfortable, even privileged life for us. He employed at least 5 people to keep our house running. He helped his brothers and their children. He played golf! And then, like many others (and fewer African Americans), he lost his money and his health. My stepmother and a friend made handpainted silk ties. They were sold to friends who still had money. This helped but could not support the family for long.

We were sent to live in another state. My aunt and uncle had three children, an ill mother and assorted relatives and friends on hard times. They had come from the South and were qualified teachers. My uncle worked with red-hot ingots for the automotive industry. My aunt worked for the government. [Three of those years were in Washington, DC.]

They fell back on frugal ways learned in an earlier time. He bought land with his army pension. From 1919 to 1936, veterans had waited for a check. We grew food, fished and collected old fields of berries. We worked boxing raspberries @5 cents. We canned and made jellies. A cold cellar kept potatoes. and rhutabagas.  My uncle got unused dough from a bakery to feed a few hogs and a few dozen donuts for us.

Sundays we ate in the diningroom. Each person had the same piece of chicken. Being the youngest and the last I got the drumstick. We went to church on Sunday and pulled the shades when playing a game with cards. The neighbors must not think we were gambling.

The truck took us back and forth the 40 miles to the farm. One child could sit in front with the adults. The rest of us huddled and hung on. I don’t remember a return when a tire did not blow. And then we drove home on the rim.

One year they hired a man to stay at the farm in the winter. He could not read or write but he could count. He knew money. One year he asked to spend Thanksgiving with his family. My brother next to me was told to take his place for the weekend. We had no phones. Over the weekend, the old man died. Snow blanketed the farm. They took some time to find a replacement and to bring my brother home! I know he did not have money. Where could he have spent it? My allowance was only 10 cents. Five cents to tithe and five cents to spend.

The food and wood ran low. The water in the well froze. I cannot imagine the isolation and fear that he experienced: 50 acres more of snow, miles from anyone else! Today, I would say that experience was Character-building.

My aunt got free government pamphlets, many written by George Washington Carver. They told her how to grow vegetables in water. How to conserve waste. How to can. What to eat healthy. We bought or were given a baby chick warmer. We raised white rabbits in the garage but they were pets. We had turkeys at the farm but they were determined to drink rain….a dangerous thing to do. I learned to use a bucket brigade which came in use later.
My cousin and I had hand-me-down clothes. She sewed beautifully. Bolts of material and a few dresses were gifts from another aunt. One pair of shoes a year regardless of need.

For fun? A lot of laughing. A toboggan for all but one in the family. A lot of games with everybody playing. And always, that other world of school. For my brothers and I, we had each other and the expectation of leaving. We had memories that there could be an easier life with hard work, school and luck.

The more I have paid attention to others lives, the more common experiences there are. So many people have suffered things I never dreamed of. And the good and the difficult all create us. We can lie down and stay defeated or we can make our dream and walk in.

Happy Holidays.

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