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Friday, April 23, 2010

Beauford and the Civil Rights Movement

This month, we commemorate the forty-second anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  Dr. King was a well-respected figure in France as leader of the U.S. Civil Rights Movement.  Two years ago, to mark the fortieth anniversary of his death, the city of Paris named a park in his honor.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Photo from the collection of the Library of Congress

Numerous African Americans lived in Paris during the Civil Rights Movement, including Beauford.  His dear friend James Baldwin would return to the U.S. to take up the cause firsthand. Beauford encouraged Baldwin in this endeavor, and wrote admiringly of an essay called "Letter from a Region of My Mind" that would later appear in Baldwin's book The Fire Next Time.  On the Minneapolis Museum of Art Web site that features the 2004-2005 exposition of Beauford's works called Beauford Delaney: From New York to Paris, part of the description of Beauford's portrait of Baldwin entitled The Sage Black (1967) reads as follows:

Filled with all the colors of a flame, this incendiary, combustible background peers through Baldwin's form, conveying the passion and fire that was such an integral part of the author who penned, just a few years before, the foreboding essay titled The Fire Next Time.

Baldwin visited Beauford in December 1962 and May 1963, and the two discussed the latest news regarding the movement in the States.  These discussions inspired Beauford to create his "Rosa Parks Series" - a number of paintings portraying a black woman sitting on a bench, either alone or with a white woman.  The Leeming biography of Beauford indicates that the first sketch depicted Mrs. Parks sitting in a bus next to the words "I will not be moved."

Beauford Delaney (1901-1979) 
Rosa Parks, 1967
oil on canvas
31 3/4" x 25 1/2 "
Estate of Beauford Delaney, Courtesy of Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, LLC, New York, NY

Beauford wrote to Henry Miller about the movement in 1963, stating that his spirit was with the struggle and that "my prayers are with all the Blacks and Whites that they find the power and patience...to join in the nobler human dignity of sharing and existing together in peace."  He would address Miller on the same topic in 1967, saying that he was interested in painting "portraits of Negroes in my fashion."  He created several portraits of African Americans during the mid-60s, including Richard Long and Marian Anderson, as a result of this inspiration.

David Leeming states in his biography that Dr. King's assassination in 1968 had a "disastrous effect" on Beauford's mental health, and the student riots that subsequently occurred in Paris further upset his equilibrium.  His friend Bernard Hassell eventually took him to the south of France for a six-week period, during which Beauford's psychological state improved greatly.  The tumultuous year ended well, with Beauford being awarded a grant by the National Council for the Arts.


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