Book Review: Chasing Me to My Grave: An Artist’s Memoir of the Jim Crow South

Book Cover Images image of Chasing Me to My Grave: An Artist’s Memoir of the Jim Crow South

by Winfred Rembert with Erin I. Kelly

Publication Date: Sep 07, 2021
List Price: $30.00
Format: Hardcover, 304 pages
Classification: Nonfiction
ISBN13: 9781635576597
Imprint: Bloomsbury Press
Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing
Parent Company: Bloomsbury Publishing PLC

Read a Description of Chasing Me to My Grave: An Artist’s Memoir of the Jim Crow South

Book Reviewed by Robert Fleming

This enthralling memoir is one of the most heralded books about the life, imagination, and cultural influences of an African American man who goes to the artistic limit attempting to make sense of the terrifying Jim Crow era in our history. Winner of the 2022 Pulitzer Prize for Biography and other notable awards, Winfred Rembert’s Chasing Me to My Grave: An Artist’s Memoir of the Jim Crow South pulls no punches in terms of the roles discrimination and bigotry played in disrupting the normal everyday lives of people of color. A product of collaboration between Tufts University scholar Erin I. Kelly and Rembert, the book recreates the raw, earthy tones of the artist’s speech, peppered with vivid memories and powerful regrets.

It is to the credit of Kelly, who met with the artist and his wife at their home every couple of weeks during the two-year period beginning in 2018, to explore Rembert’s feelings and ambitions. Their meetings would last two to four hours. Following the sessions, Kelly would edit the materials, go back to them, and read it aloud. Rembert took great pride in recounting his complex story and recreating his experiences through the full dramatic range of his vibrant artwork.

And what raw, unadorned chatter this trio shared before the final words were translated into notebooks! I’ve always held the blood tie between the environment of lack and misfortune and the fiery creative energy. Born in 1945 in Americus, Georgia, Rembert refused to allow himself to surrender to a humdrum existence of mindless cotton picking and peanut farming. Before Rembert’s community started to self-destruct, his personal life blew itself up while he was in his crib.

Rembert brings a quality of candor to his memoir. In the preface, he states: “Even though I have wanted to tell my story for years, I was afraid to draw attention to what happened in Cuthbert, Georgia, during my lifetime and to me. I was worried about whether people would believe me or care and whether the real people I name might in some way or another retaliate. I wasn’t sure how to talk about my search for my mother’s love or the bond I feel with Patsy. But my time in this world is up, so there is no better time. This may be the perfect time.”

The run of bad luck followed him in Cuthbert, Georgia. His mother gave him away to his aunt when he was three months old; living with his aunt, at around age 10, he attended school briefly and then went to work in the cotton fields. In 1965, as a teenager, he participated in a civil rights demonstration that turned violent, he ran, and was later arrested for car theft. Rembert was jailed and luckily survived being lynched. He later escaped, was recaptured, and shackled and marched through the streets as an example: “They wanted to show all the people who cared something about me that a nigger’s life ain’t worth a dime.” Rembert was sentenced to 27 years and was transferred to Reidsville State Prison. After one year in Reidsville, he was sent to Lee State Prison.

In 1969–1970, while working on a chain gang at the Turner County Public Work Camp in Ashburton, Georgia, he met a young girl named Patsy and they started a letter-writing campaign. Their meeting is one of the several touching moments in the book. After spending nine years in jail and in prison, Rembert received word from the parole board that he was to be released. Very shortly after his release, he and Patsy were married. Years later, they started a family, left the South, and moved North, where they both worked several jobs.

During his time spent in one Georgia prison or another, Rembert not only learned to read and write, with the help of a few schoolteachers “who were locked up for crimes related to civil rights demonstrations,” he had also learned from a fellow inmate how to fashion billfolds, wallets, shoulder bags from leather. Several years later and now with a family, it was Patsy who encouraged her husband to return pick up the tools to leatherwork. “Patsy started telling me that I should do pictures about the things I talked about around the dinner table, stories about the people I knew growing up.”

Rembert is a natural storyteller. He recalls the events and experiences of his life, both the warmhearted highs and the traumatic lows with honesty and sense of meaningful purpose. Accompanying the text of this memoir, the book features many of Rembert’s colorful paintings that include streets scenes, inmates in a prison yard, people in church, in juke joints, in pool halls, family members, and eager children in crowded classrooms all carved, drawn, and painted on leather, each one telling a story. For some reason, his patrons believed the artwork rather than the stories. Critics often compared his work to the epic artists such as Romare Bearden, Jacob Lawrence, and Charles White.

The artistic career of Rembert kicked off at the York Square Cinema in New Haven in 1998 with ten small pictures and two portraits on exhibit. In the following years, his artwork was being collected by galleries and museums in New York and New Jersey, including Yale University Art Gallery; and he had exhibitions and gave talks about his work in venues across the country. In 2010, some of his works sold for $35,000 each and one piece depicting a chain gang sold for nearly $80,000. After his death at age seventy-five in April 2021, Rembert’s memoir was completed, filled with his candid confessions, his artistic recipes, his mind-shattering observations of Jim Crow society, his emotional freedom of redemption and survival. It is, indeed, a celebration of his life. His memoir shows us that each painting captures the passage of time and is a remembrance of the sometimes joyful and bitter past. Chasing Me to My Grave is an epic journey of conflict and struggle, regret and fulfillment. This is a rare book told by a rare person.

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