Jubilee Singers with Lavender: Alfred Stieglitz and Fisk
This small framed copy of the wall sized portrait of the Fisk Jubilee Singers commissioned by Queen Victoria was given to me by my mother-in-law Florence.
The Jubilee Singers are the reason Nashville is called Music City. Singing through America and Europe, in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War, the Jubilee singers raised much of the money needed to establish and sustain Fisk University, the Princeton of black America.
Fisk has been a center of artistic life in the South ever since. Nikki Giovonni, Aaron Douglass, Arna Bontemps, Georgia O’Keefe are among the artists who have chosen to be intimately involved with the University.
Georgia O’Keefe gave a collection of her husband Alfred Stieglitz’s paintings and photographs to Fisk. In recent years a cash-strapped Fisk, facing the complex challenges of surviving racial integration, as the seven sisters in an earlier era once faced the complex challenge of facing gender integration, has been inclined to sell those paintings. Knowing that I would have sold anything hanging on any wall of my house to provide an education for my child, I support all of Fisk’s efforts to raise money to educate students. And I think Georgia O’Keefe would too.
But the more important question might be, “What would Stieglitz think?” I have my own pet theory about why O’Keefe gave the paintings to Fisk. I think it was in honor of Jean Toomer, the black novelist. She credited her affair with Toomer for giving her back her ability to paint after a nervous breakdown of sorts thought by some to have been brought on by an abortion forced on her by Stieglitz. Years ago, when I was a young woman first living in Nashville, Georgia O’Keefe’s letters to Toomer were housed at Fisk. I went to read them. The line I remember most went something like this,”I miss you. We had duck for dinner. The duck misses you.” I think that Stieglitz might applaud the selling of the paintings he collected as the end of a kind of punishment.
Below my Jubilee Singers’ portrait are faux William Edmundson sculptures carved out of soap. Edmundson was the first African-American to have a one man show at the Metropolitan Museum. Edmundson carved mythological pieces. ‘Critters’ he called them. The Edmundson-esque critters captured in this photograph were carved by students of mine who took part in a course that examined interracial-interpersonal relationships in Nashville during and after the Civil War.
Edmundson and the Jubilee Singers are among my favorite Nashville artists. Add George Jones and maybe you have three of my favorite Nashville artists. I would sell any of their works to fund the education of a single child. Diplomas are holier documents than wills.