Digging Deeper: Elizabeth Catlett and the Beauty of Freedom

Her work was something special. Elizabeth Catlett’s quiet strength and her gifts were a bridge to the whirlwinds of a century ago. Never commercial or chasing popularity, her works of art always stood center stage, as pillars of sturdy comfort against the ugly physical scars of injustice and fear. Her works of wood and stone advanced the steps of progress.

The US government’s treatment of this artist and teacher marked our national ugliness, revealed our desperate shortcomings and our errant ways, our use of power as blame. She became a Mexican citizen in the 1950s and the State Department proceeded to declare her an undesirable alien. One critic called her work clichéd, but she was an icon. She died on April 2, in Cuernavaca, Mexico (west of Mexico City) at 96 years of age. She had been married to a Mexican artist  for 54 years when he died. She had three sons, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

The hands and heart and mind of Elizabeth Catlett rose from the African-American generation after Reconstruction, a generation that included early college graduates like her mother and father (her father had taught at Booker T. Washington’s legendary Tuskegee Institute). This generation guided the passage of Negro life in turn-of-the-century neighborhoods in cities that held a great variety of jobs but few opportunities.

Boston, New York, Atlanta, Charleston, Washington, DC and hundreds of communities formed neighborhoods built more on intent and meaning, places where memories became greater capital than money.

Another child of that generation, the poet Gwendolyn Brooks, described it in her poem Kitchenette Building about Chicago in the 1930s and 40s:

We are things of dry hours and the involuntary plan,
Grayed in, and gray. “Dream” makes a giddy sound, not strong
Like “rent,” “feeding a wife,” “satisfying a man.”

But could a dream send up through onion fumes
Its white and violet, fight with fried potatoes
And yesterday’s garbage ripening in the hall,
Flutter, or sing an aria down these rooms

Even if we were willing to let it in,
Had time to warm it, keep it very clean,
Anticipate a message, let it begin?

We wonder. But not well! not for a minute!
Since Number Five is out of the bathroom now,
We think of lukewarm water, hope to get in it.

As a child living with her grandmother, Elizabeth Catlett listened to her tell the stories of slavery from her teen years in North Carolina. Hers (Elizabeth’s) became a generation who quietly shouldered the burdens of race, especially in education and art, finding ways to inspire students and a community despite closed doors.

(1919.) William Brown ended up in the hands of the crazed mob. He was beaten into unconsciousness. His clothes were torn off by the time he reached the building's doors. Then he was dragged to a nearby lamp pole on the south side of the courthouse at 18th and Harney around 11 p.m. The mob roared when they saw Brown and a rope was placed around his neck. Brown was hoisted in the air, his body spinning. He was riddled with bullets. His body was then brought down and tied behind a car and towed to the intersection of 17th and Dodge. There the body was burned with fuel taken from nearby red danger lamps and fire truck lanterns. Later, pieces of the rope used to lynch Brown were sold for 10 cents each. Finally, Brown's charred body was dragged through the city's downtown streets.

I doubt any of my readers remember well or widely experienced segregation. It demanded carefully scripted behaviors that determined where blacks could walk, sit, rest, speak, and even laugh. Segregation’s attitudes about race brooked no dissent from its code, and certainly granted even fewer rights: blacks were lynched in record numbers during Catlett’s teen years, hung by ropes strung across tree limbs without trials for unproven offenses, often burned. Tuskegee Institute counted 3,446 between 1892 and 1968. Lynchings were announced in newspapers, attended by children.

The times of Elizabeth Catlett’s youth were surrounded with hundreds of Trayvon Martins; those murdered, brutalized in the name of justice, then accused.

I Have Always Worked Hard In America, 1946

In this climate of threat and violence, she made art that spoke in everyday terms. She gave the beauty of African-American women new dimensions, but never made it unrecognizable. In fact, she was among the first to make that beauty public. What Elizabeth Catlett did was create a vocabulary free of restrictions to celebrate the undeniable freedoms found in the narrow, binding world of race in America’s 20th century, a freedom to love so fiercely revealed that it stood as a public dare and a rite of promise. Her hands gave us the first public affirmation of a dangerous notion, that beauty was an inner idea that began with loving your own gifts and sharing them, and finding meaning common to all.

Rejected for a college scholarship she had already won when the college found out she was a young black student, she went on undeterred. She pursued a life’s work on making prints and sculptures, now collected in the world’s museums.

Ethel Rosenberg

She was the essence of American freedom; unbroken and unbent by limits; steadfast in dignity; creating art without labels that expressed the profound responsibility of birth, life, family; living. Like a mother smoothing a child’s hair, she took the ugly ruffles of America, spoke in quiet promise to its bullies, and offered an endless measure of her gifts as visions of freedom beyond labels to grant the gathered peace that shines within.

We are brighter because of her. She soothed and smoothed out our bruises. Those who called her work clichéd never understood the price she paid for her balance.