Self-Portraits of the Artists

On September 18, 2009, Michael Miller wrote an article for New York Arts: An International Journal for the Arts, on the occasion of the Burt Britton Collection coming up for auction at 2:00 p.m. in New York City at Bloomsbury Auctions.  213 Lots covering, as Miller writes, “a whole period in the city’s intellectual life, not only in terms of books you might have read, but people you’d see in the street, or a restaurant, or, of course, in a bookshop.”  Who was Burt Britton, and what were the main things in his marvelous “Collection”?

"Portrait of the Collector" by John Walker. The words on the wall read, in part, "Burt Britton realizing that he is too late to get Dostoievski's signature, self-portrait, or footprint in cement...."

“Portrait of the Collector” by John Walker. The words on the wall read,
in part, “Burt Britton realizing that he is too late to get Dostoievski’s
signature, self-portrait, or footprint in cement….”

Miller writes about him beautifully: “Only in New York could a man like Burt Britton pursue successive careers as bartender and bookseller, both equally supportive for his passion for the arts, especially the arts of the word. His enthusiasm came to fruition very late one night at the Village Vanguard, when Britton served drink after drink to a solitary last guest, Norman Mailer, trying to get him to leave, so he could go home to bed. Mailer repeated over and over again, ‘What do you want from me, kid?’ Britton’s entreaties for him to go home did no good. Without thinking, Britton said, ‘Norman, here, on this piece of paper, do a self-portrait for me, drink your drink, and let’s call it a night.’ And that,  according to the collector, ‘began all this madness.’

“For years after that, Burt Britton…went on to work at the Strand Bookstore, and later joined Jeannette Watson in founding Books & Company next to the Whitney. All proved to be ideal lairs for catching writers, actors, musicians, photographers, artists, and cartoonists he admired and cajoling them into drawing self-portraits for a collection which eventually numbered over a thousand sheets. I imagine book-signings presented excellent opportunities. Britton was relentless and comprehensive, but, rather than a calculated, systematic enterprise, his collecting seems more like one of those crazy passions that strike New Yorkers in the own spectacular but private fashion, resulting in collections of thousands of records, books, or antique blacksmithing gear in walkup apartments. But Burt Britton was never secretive or solitary. He published a book of his collection in 1976.”

Hoagland-2I’ve had that book since the early 80′s, returning to it over and over, fascinated by the range of drawing styles, from Ralph Ellison’s fairly realistic self-portrait, gray-shaded and earnest, to Maya Angelou’s: just a pair of lips with “Maya Angelou” written, teeth-like, between them.  The book—Self-Portrait: Book People Picture Themselves—covers, as the title suggests, only writers, some 738 of them, from Edward Abbey to Paul Zweig.  He got self-portraits from more than writers, as Miller suggests above.  “Among the actors, Dustin Hoffman’s is spare and distant, suggesting with few lines a Rushmore-like profile. Lauren Bacall’s is a conventional and not excessively competent sketch of herself in younger years, but it has its charm. Zero Mostel had a go at Picasso, while David Niven and Paul Newman offered very amusing self-caricatures. You will find a string of great names in music: Harry Belafonte, Miles Davis, John Cage, Mabel Mercer, Thelonious Monk, and Sonny Rollins.

“Some of the most interesting drawings come from photographers. Richard Avedon’s brooding, almost menacing collage bristles with thick, angular pencil strokes and rough fields of shading.”

I’ll do a couple of posts showing self-portraits of the writers I have or will write about on this site, especially a post with self-portraits of Black writers I’ve written about here, so you’ll get to see self-portraits of the two I mentioned above, Ellison and Angelou, as well as Gwendolyn Brooks, James Alan McPherson, Charles Johnson, Ronald L. Fair, Leon Forrest, Toni Morrison, Clarence Major, James Baldwin, and more.

One of my favorite writers, not black, is Edward Hoagland.   His spare self-portrait above contrasts strikingly to his incredibly rich metaphorical style.  Yet, as I point out in one of my essays on him (“Threshold and the Jolt of Pain“), Hoagland, like many great essay writers, combines a rich, wandering prose surface with a fairly strict, often linear and spare underlying structure.  The self-portrait above might answer to that underlying strictness.  Writing—and all creativity—requires both: a wandering, random, almost chaotic process which discovers odd but important connections—Robert Bly has called this “leaping poetry”—and creates vivid, compelling language; and then a “balancing” period of “strictness” that finds a form to contain, or almost contain, all this richness and insight. Burt Britton’s collection of self-portraits gives us a glimpse of how these magicians of such balance saw themselves.

Go to a list of Black Writers and Chicago Writers on this site, and to a series on The Arts of the Essay.

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Bryan House in a New Video

It’s THE NEIGHBOR PROJECT now, and before that it was Emmanuel House.  But when Rick and Desiree Guzman started a living memorial to Rick’s youngest brother, Bryan Emmanuel Guzman, they just called it Bryan House.  That’s where it all started: this passion to help lift the working poor out of poverty so they could become equal partners in creating a better community for all of us.  In 2016 Emmanuel House was named one of “The Top 100 Most Innovative” social change organizations in the world for its efforts.

I used to refer to Bryan House as our “family’s” foundation.  I remember us building walls, painting, installing cabinet doors, painting, fixing bathroom floors and fixtures, painting some more.  But very soon so many people had joined us that long before it grew to become Emmanuel House, it had already gone far, far beyond the family.  It’s gone even further beyond us now.

BryHouse logoSo it’s good to be reminded where it all started: just Bryan House.  A new video from The Perennial Plate never mentions the Bryan House name, but any who know our history will recognize the place immediately.  You see glimpses of the inside almost from the beginning.  Then about 1 minute: 30-seconds into THE VIDEO BELOW, you catch your first glimpse of the larger building.  The video is about a family seeking to live out Jesus’ teachings—especially about welcoming the stranger, the refugee—instead of just listening to them Sunday mornings, then going about your week as if you’d hardly noticed them at all.  They’re then introduced to a Syrian family staying at…Bryan House.  A deep friendship soon forms.  It’s the kind of story we need to hear more and more, especially these days.  It would be easy to get into politics right now, but the video doesn’t.  These days our politics so often trumps the deep core of religion.  It prevents us from connecting.  It favors disconnection, polarization, us vs. them mentalities.  How powerfully politics would be transformed for the better if we started not with political ideology, but with deep, genuine, human bonds instead.  At The Neighbor Project liberals and conservatives have long worked together to reduce poverty and build wealth and investment, and they’ve discovered that those labels mean less in practice than they thought they did.

The VIDEO below is a copy of the shorter Facebook version (see it on Facebook here in slightly better resolution), but the longer 8-minute version is the best.  See that one HERE.

TNP-EH-JCRick and Desiree started Bryan House with a focus on helping refugees, and Bryan House maintains that focus.  But as their small program became more successful and showed promised of scaling up to help more families break the cycles of poverty they were trapped in, it expanded to include all the working poor they could reach.  They changed its name to Emmanuel House and acquired more houses and apartments, now naming them Emmanuel House houses.  But Bryan House remained Bryan House and will always remain so.  Then with the merger of Emmanuel House and its long-time partner, The Joseph Corporation, the name changed to The Neighbor Project.  More important, that merger more than tripled its capacity to help families escape poverty through home ownership, education, neighborhood involvement, and equitable development.

Read more about the merger HERE, and watch the Intro Video as well.  Go to The Neighbor Project’s website.  And below catch a glimpse of the place it all started.

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Marita Bonner Inducted into the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame

Because of the economics of publishing, books can only be so big.  As one reviewer wrote of my book Black Writing from Chicago, my Afterword seemed too much like a long list of apologies.  Exactly.  It was.  And the second person I apologized for omitting was Marita Bonner.  On Friday evening, November 16th, at the famous Cliff Dwellers club, 22 stories above Michigan Avenue in Chicago, Marita Bonner—along with legendary publisher Robert Sengstacke Abbott and novelist Henry Blake Fuller—was inducted into the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame.  Abbott’s Chicago Defender newspaper had an enormous impact on America—fueling, in large part, the northern migration of hundreds of thousands of American Blacks.  Fuller is considered one of America’s greatest unsung novelists—his 1893 novel The Cliff-Dwellers being the inspiration for the name of the Cliff Dwellers’ club, a club devoted to the arts and architecture, whose past members have included Hamlin Garland (the novelist who started the club), Carl Sandburg, Frank Lloyd Wright, Louis Sullivan, Booth Tarkington, Roger Ebert, and many more luminaries.


I was privileged to speak on behalf of Marita Bonner’s induction.  Below is the gist of what I said:

When I wrote about Marita Bonner in Black Writing from Chicago, I mentioned her influence on just three Chicago writers: Era Bell Thompson, Alice Browning, and Audrey Petty.  But Marita Bonner is one of the great transitional figures of Black American writing, and her influence runs deep and wide.  On page after page of her collected works, Frye Street & Environs, I read passages like these, the first from her play The Pot Maker, the second from her short story “Hate is Nothing:”

“You can see she is a woman who must have sat down in the mud. It has crept into her eyes. They are dirty. It has filtered through—filtered through her. Her speech is smudged. Every inch of her body, from the twitch of an eyebrow to the twitch of muscles lower down her body, is soiled…She picks up each foot as if she were loath to leave the spot it rests on.”

“There were times when she loved him for his calm immobility.
“But when there was a tale that carried her in quick rushes before everything—a speck of dust in the winds of Life—she never looked at him. He always made her impulses seem bad taste with his patience and aloofness.”

I catch myself saying, I’ve heard this rhythm, this kind of perceptiveness before. Where? Then it comes to me: Toni Morrison.  And as I studied Marita Bonner more, I saw that a few others has made the same shadowy connection.  These stylistic similarities came with a fascination with shape-shifting, and, even more, escaping all those identities that get foisted on you because you’re a certain class, a certain race, a certain gender.  If this talk had a title, it would be “Marita Bonner: Escaping Imposed Identities.”  In her person, in her writing, she dodged a lot, trying to escape identities that trapped you.

BonnerDreamShe is often associated with the Harlem Renaissance—one slight reason I didn’t include her in Black Writing from Chicago—and the New Negro Renaissance, which, of course, had the New Negro concept at its core, a concept that took its most potent forms in Harlem.  But Marita Bonner, while she embraced Harlem and the New Negro, also casted a wary eye on them, too.  The embrace was complicated, never full.  She escaped these identities geographically, even, being born and educated through high school in Boston, working in West Virginia, moving to D.C. next, then winding up in Chicago, where her writing bloomed, especially through her creation of her mythic, multi-ethnic neighborhood, Frye Street.

[Here, I wove together most of the ideas in two of my recent articles on this site: “Marita Bonner: Escaping Imposed Identities,” and “The Intercollegiate Wonder Book and the New Negro,” which detail her complicated embrace and her moves to escape the weights of these identities.]

She dealt harshly with those who would embrace the New Negro concept at the expense of splitting black people into a “we” and “them”—the successful New Negro, as opposed to the impoverished, underachieving, “lower class” Black—instead of thinking in terms of unity, of black people as “Us.”  In fact, in her play The Purple Flower, she refers to black people as the “Us’s,” who are trying to climb a hill guarded by white devils to reach the “purple Flower-of-Life-at-Its-Fullest.”  Still, Bonner was also suspicious of what Joyce
Flynn, the editor of Frye Street & Evirons, calls “romantic racialism” and the over-valuing of blackness.  In the story “The Hands,” for example, a young woman boards a bus and notices the hands of a black worker.  She begins to spin stereotypical scenarios about what this man is supposed to be and do given his blackness.  Yet, finally, she refers to these as mind games.

Marita Bonner also tried to escape the trapping identities imposed on women, and black women in particular, especially when they were supposed to subordinate themselves to a unified Black Identity to push forward the New Negro, usually seen, of course, as a man.  Characters like Lee in “Hate Is Nothing” take charge.  They do rush forward, but with a momentum that shows they are more than specks of dust in the wind.  And sometimes, when pushing back or pushing forward doesn’t seem efficient, they just wait.  In her earliest essay, “On Being Young—A Woman—And Colored” (a titled echoed by Lorraine Hansberry two decades later), she writes:

“You must sit quietly without a chip. Not sodden—and weighted as if your feet were cast in the iron of your soul. Not wasting strength in enervating gestures as if two hundred years of bonds and whips had really tricked you into nervous uncertainty.
“But quiet; quiet. Like Buddha—who brown like I am—sat entirely at ease, entirely sure of himself; motionless and knowing, a thousand years before the white man knew there was so very much difference between feet and hands.
“Motionless on the outside. But on the inside?
“Still. ‘Perhaps Buddha is a woman.’
“So you too. Still; quiet; with a smile, ever so light, at the eyes so that Life will flow into and not by you. And you can gather, as it passes, the essences, the tints, the shadows….”

It must be said, however, that there’s a lot of violence in Bonner’s stories—fist fights, knives, guns, family feuds, people falling out windows—not just images of peace like this. And this violence often flares when we approach racial mixing.  The truth she realized is that we are complex mixes, hybrids.  She turned most to multi-ethnicity, diversity, and blended identities to escape those simpler identities imposed by race, class, and gender.  In “Marita Bonner: Escaping Imposed Identities” I quote fully the second paragraph of her story “Nothing New,” where she introduces Frye Street as a mix of races, ethnicities, looks and languages.  “Frye Street flows nicely together.  It is like muddy water,” she writes.  But the story revolves around two violent scenes when the main character, Denny, is a young boy reaching for a flower on the white side of the street, and when he’s a young man falling in love with a white girl.  It all ends tragically, typically.  Nothing new here.  Yet Bonner begins the story and ends the story with with similar paragraphs that act as prelude and postlude.  The image at the center of both is of muddy water running downhill until it’s filtered to a clear water everyone can drink from.  This to me is symbolic of Marita Bonner’s complex dream.  Her writing holds out the possibility that muddy water filtered through diversity, through multi-ethnicity, through fought-for identities that are your own and not just ones imposed from the outside—that these will somehow filter the muddy water into a clear spring we more than ever need to come down and take a drink from.

  Go to a List of Black Writers written about on this site.

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