Review by Brian Tanguay
A black boy, just young enough to walk through town alone, hears a truck rumbling down the dirt road near a cafe. The truck pulls up alongside the boy and stops. In the cab are two white men, and riding in the bed are three or four little boys around the same age as the black boy. Using the epithet common in the American South in the late 1950s, the driver demands the black boy come closer and asks him if he can whistle. The black boy says he can. Go ahead and whistle then, says the man. The black boy tries his best, but he’s intimidated and fearful and no sound emerges. The driver laughs and tells the boys that the reason the black boy can’t whistle is because his lips are too thick.
That little boy was the artist Winfred Rembert and the place was Cuthbert, Georgia. Jim Crow still dictated what black people could and couldn’t do, where they could and couldn’t go, and Rembert would feel its relentless weight and terror many times as he grew up. One day when Rembert was just six or seven the owner of the cotton plantation where his aunt worked took him into the barn and pointed to some glass jars in which men’s private parts floated like pickled fruit. “That’s Old Tom,” the owner laughed, “and this here’s Old John. Don’t let that be you, boy.”
Even though he was a little boy, Rembert understood the message because it was the same one he saw and heard everywhere he went in and around Cuthbert: You’re nothing, stay in your place. Step out of your place and you’ll be taught a lesson you won’t forget.
For as long as he lived Winfred Rembert couldn’t understand what drove white people to go out of their way to degrade and humiliate black people. As a young man Rembert was nearly castrated and lynched; he was incarcerated and did hard labor on a road gang. All these experiences might have filled Rembert with bitterness and resentment, but instead they became the raw material for magnificent works of Art. Rembert’s life story is as chilling as it is transcendent, and he tells it in his own words in his Pulitzer Prize winning memoir, Chasing Me To My Grave, published in 2022 by Bloomsbury.
The remarkable narrative is accompanied by 76 full-color paintings that leap off the page, scenes of cotton fields and juke joints, chain gangs and pool halls. Rembert’s medium was stretched leather rather than canvas, a technique he first learned in prison and then perfected through years of trial and error. His paintings bear witness, they’re raw and vivid and colorful. Writing in the Foreword, Bryan Stevenson, author of Just Mercy and founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, notes that Rembert’s art recognizes a fundamental truth: that the great evil of American slavery wasn’t involuntary servitude and forced labor, but the insidious construct of white supremacy.
In the last years of his life Winfred Rembert’s body of work began to be recognized by elite galleries and educational institutions, and in 2011, a documentary film directed by Vivian Ducat, All Me: The Life and Times of Winfred Rembert was released and garnered praise on the festival circuit.
Winfred Rembert passed away in April 2021 at the age of seventy-five.