African American History · art

Phoebe Beasley’s talk (and graduating senior) inspire

Rich Megraw, professor in UA’s Department of American Studies, and UA History major Undre Phillips view Phoebe Beasley’s art work.

Artist Phoebe Beasley was a huge inspiration last evening during her talk at Tuscaloosa’s Dinah Washington Cultural Arts Center. She brought several collages with her rather than refer to them via a Powerpoint.

Beasley, whose work is in many public and private collections, discussed her life experiences and approach to art. She is deeply interested in the multi-layered stories of human life, African American life in particular, which she displays via collages filled with found and discarded objects (including items saved by friends). The texture of things appeal to her. To see some of her work, visit here.

One of the individuals who encouraged her when she was a child was her step-mother. While listening to her share this particular story, I was reminded of my elementary school art teacher Magda Bader, a Holocaust survivor who, too, encouraged me.

Magda Bader, my elementary art school teacher, beside one of her paintings.

She kept me after school to complete drawings or posters for various local, regional and national contests. Knowing it is worthwhile to repeat such acts, I encouraged my students to attend Beasley’s talk. Graduating senior Undre Phillips took me up on the offer. He even joined a group of faculty for a dinner with Beasley afterwards.

Undre, was in my “The Nineteenth Century City” course. He helped raise money for the world premiere of our music video “Druid City” at Tuscaloosa’s Jemison Mansion. He is presently completing his final paper for my “Bebop to Hip Hop: Young America and Music” course. His analytical skills were always sharp. Since we met in Fall 2014, I have seen his writing improve. Many students face this struggle.

This Opelika, Alabama, native is interested in graduate school. I expect to see even greater things from him someday (The AKA woman in me will also shamelessly say he is also my “brother” as he is a member of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity Inc. In fact, he was only recently the chapter president here at UA).

UA History major and Artist Phoebe Beasley at the Dinah Washington Cultural Arts Center.
University of Alabama History major Undre Phillips said he chose to take one of his graduation photos on the porch of Tuscaloosa’s Jemison Mansion because he recalled the many complex stories he learned about the Jemisons, but also how this 1859 Italianate house reportedly had the first running water in Tuscaloosa. Modernity in all its guises interests him.

Undre, doubtless like me and others, left Beasley’s talk encouraged by so many things she shared including words given to her by her late dear friend Maya Angelou. Years ago, Dr. Angelou asked Dr. Beasley what she was working on. At the time, Beasley was primarily focused on her career in radio sales although she longed to focus more on her art. After all, she had earned a degree in this discipline at Ohio University in 1965. Angelou told Beasley “You are smart enough and educated enough to figure it out. Figure it out. If you don’t use it, you will lose it.”

lost reading room 2008 beasley
“Lost Reading Room,” (2008), Phoebe Beasley.

Angelou’s words were digested. Beasley learned to turn off the television (like me, she loves sports. She grew up in Cleveland and was a fan of the Cleveland Browns). Her television was off so long, as she told the audience, her cable company called to say her cable connection had malfunctioned. She did not know as much because she could not recall the last time she watched it.

In fact, the last time she regularly watched television, the 1980s show “Cagney and Lacey” was a hit. Beasley said she does permit herself these days to catch up with old episodes of “Law and Order.”

battle of the big horns 1988
“Battle of the Big Horns” (2002), Phoebe Beasley.

As I turn to today’s “Gender, Race and the Urban Space” course with my grad students (again, we turn once more to Miami, my hometown), I will still be thinking Beasley. Her father was born in Montgomery, Alabama, before his parents headed north to Cleveland when he was just three months, never returning (Historian Kimberly Phillips captures the activism of rural African Americans who migrated in the first half of the twentieth century to Cleveland in a study that I have used in my “Black Urban Culture” class).

I will think about Angelou’s injunction and Beasley’s inspirational talk. Teaching is my primary occupation. I have, as I  have shared, other interests, most of them artistic. I am lucky to work for a University and indeed, a College (the College of Arts and Sciences), that encourages creativity in and outside of the classroom. Indeed, Beasley’s serigraph “Langston Hughes Suite: Mother to Son” (1998), which was part of a collaborative project with Angelou, will figure into an exhibition several faculty are curating. The exhibition, to be held in Spring 2017, features other work from UA’s Paul Jones Gallery collection.

I look forward to our ongoing work on this exhibition with Dalila Scruggs. Meanwhile, I am grateful to my colleagues Stacy Morgan and Rich Megraw of UA’s Department of American Studies, Hilary Green of Gender and Race Studies, Michelle Robinson and Trudier Harris of the Department of English and John Beeler of the Department of History, for the memories shared this week during Beasley’s visit.

Meanwhile, congratulations to Hilary for the recent publication of her book Education Reconstruction: African American Schools in the Urban South, 1865-1890. She is holding a copy of it in one the pictures posted on this blog entry. My copy will be part of my beach reading pile this summer.

hilary's book
Fordam University Press just published Hilary Green’s study on postbellum African American education in the urban South



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