Poverty is associated with darkness, gray, and hopelessness—but out of necessity and lack, substance is developed, ideas are conceived, and artists are born. When I created The Sun Still Shines (shown on the cover of this issue) I reflected on how people view poverty. I clearly remember hearing a former president say, while driving through a poor neighborhood, “How can they live like that?” My artwork is often a response. Many people who have not experienced living in poverty speak as if the sun does not shine on the poor like it does the rich. But that is not so. As Gwendolyn Brooks says, “It cannot always be night.”
Many of my paintings serve as visual memoirs and abstract expressions of growing up in Harlem. A Harlem Story is an expression of growing up in a tenement. As I walked home after getting off the school bus, I’d see heroin needles. I didn’t know what they were. They caught my attention because there were so many and they created interesting designs on the sidewalk. I’d continue to walk up the stairs, past people nodding out on heroin in the stairwell. I didn’t know who these people were. I was never afraid and, amazingly, nobody ever bothered me, even when I had to walk my dog on the roof. One day I almost fell off the roof trying to catch my dog. I know someone had to be watching over me. Spirits. African Ancestors. Angels. I never knew the danger I was in until I looked back as an adult.
Harlem Baby: Winter in America for those who do not sing the song of career slaves is a collective of voices and an interactive artwork. If viewers listen, they can hear the voices of Black icons. Harlem Baby (that’s me!) sits in the bottom window, left of Angela Davis, listening and learning. Harlem Baby and a Bottle of Harriet pays homage to old-school Harlem cultural heroes—Shaft, Langston Hughes, Nina Simone, Gordon Parks—and the Queen, the single Black mother. Harriet is on the wine label and a bowl of fruit (painted in the style of Paul Cézanne) sits on the table, reminding the viewer to partake in personal freedom as I have done in this work.
Under A Soprano Sky is a tale of two places. This artwork chronicles the history of Black people from Africa to the United States. The title comes from a poem by Sonia Sanchez. The viewer should imagine the history of African Americans being narrated as Marion Anderson sings a note in her pure contralto. Everything that happened and is still happening to Black people—the kidnapping, the Middle Passage, the journey, slavery, the breaking up of Black families, the torture, the fight for civil rights and even the Black Lives Matter struggle—it all happens under the sky, while somebody, somewhere, is singing.