Saturday, 28 February 2015

Love letters and my learning curve

My beloved friend Dr. Grace Sawyer Jones sent me a copy of the book "Aaron Douglas and Alta Sawyer Douglas - Love Letters from the Harlem Renaissance" (Wisdom House Books 2008).
Perhaps because I live  in a "white bubble"  I had never heard of Aaron Douglas - a key figure of the Harlem Renaissance.  The love of Aaron's life was Alta Sawyer.  She was the aunt of Grace Sawyer Jones.
Jones, with her sisters Linda, Constance, Cyrene and Mariama, came together to have the love letters between Aaron and Alta published in the above book.
The letters reveal a passionate  (in every sense of the word) relationship.   Aaron (know as "Doug") and Alta were High School friends in Topeka, Kansas who later drifted apart.  Alta married a handsome young law student, but after eighteen months she know that she had made a mistake.
"Doug" and Alta re-kindled their friendship and had a clandestine affair.  Alta sought a divorce from her first husband  (almost unthinkable in 1920's Kansas).  The possibilities for scandal were abundant.
Their love letters are
FIRST  those from "Doug" to Alta when he was living in Kansas City.
SECOND  those from "Doug" to Alta when he moved to Kansas.
We do not have Alta's responses, (more's the pity!) She ordered that "Doug" should destroy ever letter she sent him in this period, lest they be "discovered"  and used to jeopardize her divorce proceedings.
THIRD  Alta's letters to "Doug" in 1938 when he was painting and studying in Haiti.
But the flesh is all about "Doug's" struggles to complete his education, and his deep longings to achieve his vocation as an artist.  It is all about Alta's critical devotion to him ( and she was no "pushover"!)
Above all (for me) it tells of their rich life in Harlem, and their friendships with such luminaries as W.E.B Dubois, Langston Hughes, Arna Bontemps, and the very great Johnson Brothers  (James and John) see:
These brothers are best known to Episcopalians as the lyricist and composer for the fabulous hymn "Lift ev'ry voice and Sing" (Episcopal Church Hymnal #599).  What a powerful text.

Lift every voice and sing
Till earth and heaven ring,
Ring with the harmonies of Liberty;
Let our rejoicing rise
High as the listening skies,
Let it resound loud as the rolling sea.
Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us,
Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us,
Facing the rising sun of our new day begun
Let us march on till victory is won.

Stony the road we trod,
Bitter the chastening rod,
Felt in the days when hope unborn had died;
Yet with a steady beat,
Have not our weary feet
Come to the place for which our fathers sighed?
We have come over a way that with tears has been watered,
We have come, treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered,
Out from the gloomy past,
Till now we stand at last
Where the white gleam of our bright star is cast.
God of our weary years,
God of our silent tears,
Thou who has brought us thus far on the way;
Thou who has by Thy might Led us into the light,
Keep us forever in the path, we pray.
Lest our feet stray from the places, our God, where we met Thee,
Lest, our hearts drunk with the wine of the world, we forget Thee;
Shadowed beneath Thy hand,
May we forever stand.
True to our God,
True to our native land. 
1. I confess my shame at knowing nothing about the truly great American Artist Aaron Douglas until now. (That's what I mean by my "white bubble")
2. I thank God for my friendship with Dr. Grace Sawyer Jones.  She has taught me so much.

3. Having read this book I know that I have walked with the gods.
For further reference please see:

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