My Little Corner of Black History Month

In celebration of Black History Month, this space would like to share a couple of personal encounters with the Arts and Literary history of African Americana. Just because.

Benny Andrews
Benny Andrews (1930-2006)

Art first. Soon after I arrived in San Francisco, there was a gallery show of the work of Benny Andrews. Benny Andrews was just my #1 all-time favorite African American artist, thanks to having first encountered his work in my undergraduate days (R-MWC 1953, BA, Art.) As we entered the gallery my new husband Bud grabbed my hand and said, “C’mon, I want to introduce you to Benny.” Well, I knew Bud knew everybody, especially every artist alive, but personally? He had gotten hooked on art in one class during his own senior undergraduate year (Albion, 1951, BA Economics & Political Science) and since then had spent every spare moment hanging out at galleries and museums. But Benny Andrews? Could he really know Benny Andrews? And more to the point, could I possibly do anything but gush embarrassingly in front of a famous person who happened to be my #1 all-time African American artist hero? I went into panic mode. There were a LOT of people milling around looking at beautiful paintings; bunches of them were gathered around the artist. I tried to think of something intelligent I might say, but it wasn’t happening.

Benny Andrews drawing
“The Guitar Picker” (With apologies for photographer’s ghost)

Meanwhile, my good husband, all 6’4” of him, was plowing ahead, aiming straight toward Benny Andrews, with me in tow. There was no escape, and my brain was on freeze. In a matter of moments we were standing face to face. Briefly acknowledging Bud, Benny reached out and gave me a giant hug. And said, “Aren’t you darlin’ to come see my pictures!”

Sometime later we were able to buy his utterly beautiful pencil drawing “The Guitar Picker.” It’s now at the National Gallery in D.C. But just thinking about it makes me smile, and remember that gentle, kind, incredibly gifted man saying “Aren’t you darlin’ to come see my pictures.”

My other famous artist story has to do with my #1 all-time favorite living African American artist, Radcliffe Bailey. Met him in real time, after admiring his work at Atlanta’s High Museum (and elsewhere) for years, when he turned up at a milestone birthday party in California for my friend Liz Campbell Moskowitz (no slouch of an artist herself.) She introduced us offhandedly, and I said, with something less than socially acceptable composure, “OMG! You’re Radcliffe Bailey!?! I love your work! That room of your paintings is the first place I go when I’m at the High!” He was polite about my effusion, though.

Fran w Radcliffe Bailey 2.16.19
Radcliffe Bailey & me

This was a couple of years before he married Leslie, daughter of Liz and the renowned photographer Gordon Parks. I think I’m unlikely to top those two encounters any time soon.

As for the Literature area.

In the late 1960s, Bud (whom I would marry in 1992 but with whom I was not then in contact) owned a house at 2777 Pine Street in San Francisco. A graceful Victorian built in the 1870s, it sold a few years ago for three or four million – but in 1968 the neighborhood was not one you’d wander around without risking bodily harm. Bud lived in the ground-floor apartment, and rented the main house to Eldridge and Kathleen Cleaver. At the time, Black Panther leader Eldridge was out on bail following an attempted murder charge. He would eventually skip the country and later return, find religion, design provocative menswear, become a Mormon, struggle with cocaine addiction and die at age 62 in 1998. That was 30 years after he’d been Bud’s tenant. “I had no problems with the neighborhood,” my husband used to say of that time; “either the cops or the Black Panthers were there at any given time; usually both.”

Kathleen Cleaver (who had answered the For Rent ad and signed the lease) would go on to earn a J.D. from Yale Law School and eventually become a distinguished lecturer at Yale and at Emory University. But between her tenancy on Pine Street and her later career she joined Eldridge in exile in Algeria, and became the mother of two. On Pine Street, she handled the family finances. Because they were chancy at best, the rent seldom arrived on time. (When the Cleavers skipped town they were two months in arrears. So my husband went to the Black Panther headquarters in Oakland and said he’d like to have his rent. You did what? he was asked. “I said I wanted two months rent. They paid.”)

Cleaver letter
(More apologies for another photographer-ghost)

When cleaning out our safe deposit box recently I found the letter at right. The letterhead is that of Ramparts, a radical publication for which Kathleen Cleaver wrote. I’d known of the letter’s existence; my husband included it in a story he once wrote, and had offered it to several museums but gotten no response. So I mentioned finding it to my daughter and said I couldn’t figure out what to do with it. “Frame it, Mom,” she said. Thus the document shown here. It reads:

Mr. Johns:

Please excuse the delay but I have been so god damned busy with these pigs and courts and chaos that I completely forgot to pay the rent. You are so very sweet to be so unobtrusive and gentle with me. I think you are the perfect landlord and I would just like to warn you that you should prepare yourself for any day now some kind of assault on this house. I think it is beautiful, I love it, I won’t go away, but the local, federal, international, secret and off duty pigs as well as reagon (sic,) rafferty, shelton, wallace, alioto, et al want to do us in, Eldridge first, then me.

Here’s the rent.

Peace, Mrs. Cleaver