People! flung wide and far, born into toil, struggle, blood and dreams … the loved and the unloved, the lonely and abandoned, the brutal and the compassionate—one big family hugging close to the ball of Earth for its life and being.
I arrived in Washington late afternoon with just enough time to go visit the Phillips Collection, where all 60 panels of Jacob Lawrence’s The Migration Series have been reunited in celebration of the opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture on the Mall. The series tells the story of the mass movement of African Americans from the rural South to the urban North between the first and second world wars. I had seen the odd numbered panels at the Phillips before, and the even numbered ones at Museum of Modern Art in New York, but never taken every step of the journey with the artist’s stark images and narrative captions.
As I moved around the perimeter of the room from one 12 x 18 inch panel to the next, the scenes of overflowing railroad stations, crowded trains, bleak tenement rooms, abandoned fields, blazing foundries, menacing Southern landowners and mercenary Northern labor agents erased all other thoughts from my mind. By the time I stepped away from the last panel, captioned, “And the migrants kept coming,” the poverty and oppression I’d been immersed in made the elegance of the gallery I stood in seem unreal.
The next day at the Smithsonian American Art Museum I came upon John Singer Sargent’s Spanish Dancer in a granite alcove and recognized the figure instantly. It was the same woman who can be seen performing in front of clapping figures and two guitarists seated against a shadowy wall in El Jaleo at the Gardner Museum in Boston. Here, in this stand-alone, larger-than-life-size portrait, nothing distracts from her intensity and power, and she took my breath away. Everything about her posture, the right elbow that sticks out at you, the left arm that arches gracefully above her black fringed shawl, her hand against her hip controlling her glossy white satin skirt, her stacked heels stomping the floor, says she’s a force to be reckoned with.
At the National Gallery I headed straight for the collection of drawings and paintings by Golden Age Dutch Masters. I wanted to see Rembrandt’s Old Man Seated, a red chalk sketch done in 1631 which captures light and shadow as exquisitely as his later depiction of the same figure in oil as the Old Testament patriarch Jacob in Joseph Telling His Dreams at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.
In the same gallery I noticed an oil portrait by Abraham Bloemaert called Head of an Old Man. Here was not a peaceful, wise elder, wrapped in loose robes, but a man wearing an open tunic with an unnaturally elongated neck, thick and muscular like someone who had known physical labor. Though his head was slightly bowed, his look was defiant. His Roman nose and deep-set eyes suggested an inner strength, while the soft lines around his mouth and eyes showed he had experienced disappointment and come to terms with it.
The next morning I got on a Megabus to Philadelphia for the first leg of my return trip home. I’d been dreading it and it lived up to my worse expectations. I had reserved a place at what was supposed to be a table between facing seats, but it turned out to be more like a narrow tray, too small to accommodate even one person working on a laptop.
The heat was going full blast and I still had on my down coat because there was no place to stow it, or the heavy tote bag in my lap, neither above my head nor under the seat, so I off-loaded both to a raised shelf between the back of my seat and the Plexiglas screen that separated the driver from the passengers.
A man seated in the forward-facing seat at the table on the other side of the bus watched me and said, “You’re not allowed put anything there.”
I kept my back to him and pretended not to hear him.
“Well, there are a few drivers who will let you,” he hedged.
He was a scruffy man in his sixties wearing a rumpled white shirt and dusty trousers with the fly at half mast. Content that he had established himself to an outsider as someone who knew the ropes, he took out a smelly sandwich, ate it with gusto, stretched out across the two hard-as-rocks seats with his feet sticking out into the aisle and took a nap.
Usually on a trip like this I would pass the time by writing, reading or fiddling with my smart phone like the young man sitting across from me, but my seat faced the rear of the bus and the combination of looking backwards, bumpy roads, exhaust fumes and excessive heat made me too queasy to do anything. A quick glance at my watch told me I was only three minutes into what would be three hours of misery, if I was lucky and there were no traffic delays.
The seats behind the self-appointed bus monitor were squished together, accordion-style, to make room for a wheelchair positioned so that the dark-haired, brown-skinned man in it could only look straight ahead out the window. Perhaps because I felt trapped in a seat where crossing my legs or extending my feet was impossible, my awareness of what his permanent confinement must be like was more acute.
At first I thought he was traveling alone, but then I noticed a Hispanic woman my age get up from one of the seats he had his back to and go over to speak with him and I deduced she was his mother. I wondered when he became disabled and how long she’d been his caretaker.
My problems seemed trivial compared to hers and I admired her stamina. Although none of my children have a debilitating physical limitation, they have faced other kinds of barriers to moving on in their lives and I knew how exhausting an adult child who is struggling can be for an aging mother.
She kept looking out the window as if trying to figure out where we were, and she looked worried when she passed me on her way down the aisle to speak to the driver. He reprimanded her sharply for leaving her seat, but she held her ground and asked him to confirm that the bus would stop at White Marsh Mall outside Baltimore. I didn’t hear the driver say yes, but he must have indicated it did because she seemed more relaxed when she got back to her seat.
After we passed the Inner Harbor I was surprised to see her stand up and start for the front of the bus again after being yelled at the first time. With her head held high and her face fixed in a determined gaze, she grabbed the tops of the seats along the way with one hand and then the other to maintain a straight, unwavering stride despite the rocking motion of the bus. There was something so fierce and uncompromising about how she propelled herself forward that it made me think of Sargent’s Spanish Dancer. She was neither young nor beautiful, but like the woman in the painting, her hair was dark and swept back and she had the same here-I-am-deal-with-me intensity.
“You’ll have to operate the lift when we get to White Marsh,” she insisted to the driver and this time, instead of ordering her back to her seat, he assured her he’d take care of it.
The veteran rider across from me woke up, polished off another sandwich, took a stack of brown napkins out of his food bag and cleaned his hands using a fresh one for each finger. Earlier I’d dismissed him as slovenly, but now his meticulous after-meal ritual prompted me to study him more carefully.
He stood up far enough to peek over his seat and his outstretched neck looked unusually long like the old man’s in the Bloemeart painting and for a few seconds I saw the same pride and resignation in his face. When he turned in my direction I didn’t avoid eye contact, but offered an almost imperceptible nod of respect for how he had come to terms with the tedium of riding this bus a lot more often than I did.
We pulled off the highway and entered the White Marsh Mall. The parking lot was so huge it felt like we were in the middle of nowhere. While the driver operated the lift to lower the wheelchair to the ground, the Hispanic mother was on a cell phone trying to explain where they were to someone. She asked the driver what stores were nearby and he didn’t know. Then a passenger spotted the big red “M” of a Macy’s sign and pointed it out to her. The driver finished unloading her son and she wheeled him to grassy median to wait for their ride.
An African American family of six got on—an attractive mother, a tall lean father, two adolescent boys in crisp white shirts and identical jackets, and two younger girls in braids tied with red ribbons. “Beautiful family,” I thought as I watched them one by one step on board.
In addition to whatever they’d stowed underneath in the luggage compartment, they were all carrying a bag or a package in each hand as they crowded into the entrance and climbed the narrow stairway to the upper deck. In my mind’s eye I could see Panel 23 of Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series and they became one of the thousands of uprooted families from small towns in South Carolina, Alabama or Georgia getting on an already packed train going to Chicago, New York or Detroit, carrying all their worldly possessions. I knew nothing about their lives and they were probably just going home for a holiday visit, but in that moment they represented the struggle to survive of too many people of color—then and now.
When I was a teenager, I discovered a book called The Family of Man, a collection of photographs of people from all over the world showing the full range of human experience—lovemaking, childbirth, poverty, loneliness, despair and death. For me, it became like a treasured photo album of friends and relatives, and I carried it with me from place to place and never parted with it.
As the only child of parents who were so enmeshed with each other I often felt left out, these moving images helped me feel less alone. Looking at the photographs of an old woman standing on a delta in Botswana with three or four generations of her descendants dressed in loincloths, and on the facing page, an American great-grandmother sitting in a rocking chair surrounded by her kinfolk in their Sunday best in what could have been my grandmother’s parlor, I knew that I too had a place in the shared story of bigger family.
The ordinary people in these photographs became companions on my journey through life and set into motion my desire to learn from art how to see and respond to the world around me. An unwanted bus ride made it possible for me to put into practice what art has taught me—that the beauty and diversity of humanity doesn’t just hang on walls.