Art out of Trauma

A disadvantage of book groups is that sometimes you have to read books that you never would have picked up on your own and that you don’t enjoy. The upside is that sometimes you have to read books that you never would have picked up on your own and that you end up loving.

Tonight, my book group is discussing Chasing Me to My Grave: An Artist’s Memoir of the Jim Crow South by Winfred Rembert, with the help of a Tufts philosophy professor, Erin I. Kelly. This Pulitzer Prize winner falls into the latter category. I had never heard of Rembert, but after reading the book and watching the 2011 documentary film All Me, I know and appreciate Rembert’s work and his humanity, and I comprehend better than before the atrocities and horror of Jim Crow, lasting well beyond the Civil Rights Movement of the 60s.

Like many trauma survivors, Rembert (1945-2021) worries that other people are not going to believe his stories. (Think of Holocaust survivors like Primo Levi, and many sexual assault survivors.) The stories are almost unbelievable. He was nearly lynched at around the age of nineteen, taken to a remote woods and strung up by his feet. One of his white attackers almost castrated him, and he would have been killed if another man hadn’t intervened, saying, “Carry him on back to the jail. He gonna die anyway.”

Sent to prison, he worked on a chain gang. He spent days in a sweat box, unable to stand or sit. The miracles he experienced are just as incredible as his suffering. He learned construction and engineering skills while in prison. He was released early on parole, while others rotted in jails for a lifetime. He had a long, loving marriage with a stalwart woman named Patsy. And, luckily for us, he learned to emboss and dye leather, his medium of choice.

His stunning works of art chronicle the experiences described in his book. Some of the most beautiful reveal agonies, like sharecroppers bent double over stylized rows of cotton, a white overseer with a scale standing in their midst. Others depict a mosaic of black-and-white striped uniforms of men on the chain gang.

Everyone should read this book, every American, anyway, of say, high-school age and over. It disturbs the reader, yes. That’s our history, and too bad for us. As Memphis shows, it’s our present, too. Rembert’s story is filled with horrors, but also of resilience, hope, and love. Watch the film, too, All Me, available on Amazon Prime. You can also see Rembert in Ashes to Ashes, available on YouTube.

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