re-Searching Beauford Delaney: part three
E. L. Kornegay Jr., Ph.D.
One of the things most underappreciated about the artistry of Beauford Delaney is the effort expended by Beauford and the cost exacted from him to beat back the social dross of a society bent and broken apart by racism. Beauford did not necessarily paint what he lived – he painted his resistant hope for a world that was yet to exist. Whether he ever realized that it was moving in the direction of his paintings is somewhat of a mystery. One thing that I do know is that living in the tension of racism and a society that failed to embrace his blackness, his masculinity, thwarted his ability to love openly and challenged the hope of his soul. This drove him out of America and, dare I say, out of his mind.
What Beauford left behind for us is amazing. In spite of depression and oppression he was able to leave a message on canvas of a world above the one in which he existed. It is by grace that he shaped a way for the images of a world envisioned in his mind to find their way onto the serene landscape of his canvas.
Race and racism have broken many people and communities of color. This was Beauford’s experience. The benevolence shown by white sponsors and A-list associations with entertainers and artists afforded him little relief from the racist conundrum faced by the exceptional Negro. Beauford was exceptional, but still Negro.
Against this backdrop, biographer David Leeming draws us a picture of the life and work of Beauford Delaney. To Leeming’s credit, Amazing Grace is a rich accounting of a black artist striving to live in the spirit of his gift in a world that sought to diminish his worth. The text is as much a chronicle of the growing pains of a nation and humanity as it is a singular tale of Beauford’s dogged determination to be an artist. This is what made Beauford the human being that he was – he was graced with the power to capture not what he saw with his natural eye, but what he saw with his spirit. However, Amazing Grace is limited by the disconnection between its author and a social context that was viewed, but not necessarily lived.
Those of us who have experienced the racism and bigotry of American society firsthand share in the knowledge of how it divides the mind and seeks separation of body and soul, leaving the latter to fend for itself. Living is a battle on multiple fronts, with the lack of relief or safety often ending in wonderful gifts and unrivaled beauty being lost in various forms of addiction – or, in the case of Beauford, a formal withdrawal from deliberating the troubles of this world.
The toil, the never ending of toil of life, can cause the best of us to lose balance. Beauford slipped in and out this world and sanity as he toiled. Eventually he became too tired to fight, finally giving in, but not before leaving his gift intact on canvas.
Leeming reminds his readers over and over again of the power of Beauford’s spirit and the sacredness of his gift. The creation of art was Beauford’s passion: it was a full cup and a heavy, yet wondrous cross he bore at all costs. He fulfilled his purpose. His spirit did not return vanquished to the eternal – it accomplished what it was sent here to do.
Beauford left it to the world to ponder the “what if” of his mental state. The world was not meant to be this hard – he knew it even if those around him failed to recognize that fact. In a chilling way, it seems that he left long before his physical body breathed its last breath. What remained, still physically warm but drained of spiritual vitality, reminds us of how strong the will of a body remains long after the fight has ended.
When I read about Beauford, I am reminded of the lives of the multitude of persons who have passed into history without a whisper. Anytime I look on the dark face of a man or woman, hardened and scarred by the raging world around them, left mumbling, begging with their backs against a dirty wall sitting on a bustling, uncaring city sidewalk, I see Beauford. It was from a similar position that he painted the wonderful works we now laud. Who he was and what he saw are one and the same – they create a complete picture. It is amazing that he graced us with the world we hope for on canvas and in doing so created a way to escape, however momentarily, the madness knocking at our door.