Few of us can imagine the hellish reality of life for Black Americans in the 20th century’s South, in poverty, indentured servitude, and the constant targeting and oppression over decades that followed slavery. The life of the painter and leatherworker Winfred Rembert contained such shocking tales of brutality that the artist’s reluctance to share his story with the world lasted until just a few years before his passing in March of 2021. Erin I. Kelly co-authored the book “Chasing Me to My Grave: An Artist’s Memoir of the Jim Crow South,” built on more than two years of interviews with Rembert and his wife, Patsy. The memoir brings to life the heartbreaking struggles and astonishing resilience of the artist as he endured a childhood without his birth mother or much education, cruel beatings as an adult, and a daring escape from jail only to be nearly lynched and returned to prison. It also shares the sweeter moments of meeting his wife and starting a new life with her in New Haven, Connecticut, where his artwork eventually met national recognition. Erin I. Kelly and widow Patsy Rembert joined “City Lights” host Lois Reitzes to talk about this extraordinary artist, and the sense of beauty he kept alive through so many years of pain.
Rembert’s early days of loss and deprivation:
“Winfred had a problem with being given away after he learned that he was given away. The thought entered his mind that he wasn’t wanted… He couldn’t quite understand why his mother would give him away,” said Rembert. “His father was nowhere to be seen. But as we went on in life, I tried to explain some things to him about that situation. It was an unsafe venture that his mother had entered into, and it’s a long story, but she didn’t really have a choice… Winfred just couldn’t understand.”
“He couldn’t really go to school and learn. If he had gone to school, I don’t know where I would have met him. But he couldn’t go to school, he didn’t learn how to read and write. That’s where ‘artistic’ kicked in, he could only put things together and make stuff from nothing. It gave him an outlet to get through his frustration. He would make things out of nothing.”
A punishing life in the Jim Crow South, escape and aftermath:
“He was denied an education, and eventually fled from the cotton fields to discover a Black community in Cuthbert, Georgia. He gets involved in the civil rights movement, is arrested and nearly lynched, and spends the next seven years on chain gangs,” said Kelly. “He doesn’t know why he was released, but he was, and he and Patsy, whom he had met while he was on the chain gang, married, and eventually moved north to New Haven, Conn., where they raised a family… Patsy encouraged Winfred to tell his life story on leather, to carve and tell his life’s story as picture on leather, which he did.”
“We had been married over five years, and he would have nightmares, and he would wake up in a sweat, a rage, and I thought it was from the Army,” said Rembert. “He told me that he was reliving things that happened to him, and when he started to explain, he said ‘You’re not going to believe me…’ Me being from the South, this something that was not far-fetched for me to believe.” Rembert went on, “It was necessary for him to do what he’d done. It was necessary not only for him, but for a lot more Black people that come from the South… afraid to talk about the punishment and the horror that they suffered. Him telling this story about himself, he actually told the story of a lot more Black people, Black men, who were afraid to talk about it.”
Finding a way to communicate and heal through art:
“Cotton is a beautiful thing if you’re not working in it. It’s okay to look at, it’s just not okay to work in. He could see the beauty in all the things he’d done, even when it was a tragedy. He could find a way to bring the beauty from whatever he was doing, ‘cause that’s what he was about. Love and happiness is what he wanted,” said Rembert.
“I was blown away by somebody that had such a vivid and detailed memory,” said Kelly. “He would close his eyes, and he would start to describe his journey back into his past in his mind, and these characters. And then he would become so animated, because he was talking about members of the Black community who had helped him, who had befriended him, and he was just so joyous. His memories of these people who he created works of art about much later in his life, were so important to him… including in prison, to have these memories that he could retreat to and people who comforted him, people who were on his side, who could help to sustain him.”
“It’s his soul that he’s pouring out, and it’s a cry for help, the way I look at some of his work. It’s a cry for help for humanity, to come back full force,” said Rembert. “He’s trying to reach people. He’s trying to reach them in a way, even though these are hard times, he made it beautiful for you to look at. He captured that. That’s his soul that he’s putting on those canvases.”