Domesticity and Memory in James Baldwin and Becky Suss ‹ Literary Hub


In 1976, James Baldwin published his first and only children’s book, Little Man, Little Man: A Childhood Story—a collaboration with French artist and illustrator Yoran Cazac. Described on the cover of his jacket as a “kid’s story for grown-ups,” the book draws on Baldwin’s own difficult experiences growing up as a black boy in Harlem, though it was written in part at the request from another young, black, New York. man.” Baldwin’s nephew, Tejan, often asked his famous uncle when he would ever write a book about him, to which Baldwin responded in the form of the story’s four-year-old protagonist, TJ. The book, however , was not well received upon release.

Black American scholar and children’s book author Julius Lester found its hybrid perspective “unclear” and deemed the book “light” and “not particularly exciting” in a review for The New York Times. Children’s literature was a “genre unto itself” and required, according to Lester, its own prescribed vision. Any Baldwin-like “literary figure” who moonlights in adopted genres and wants to write a “adult childhood story” should do so, according to Lester, but rather in the form of a adult novel – something akin to Baldwin’s first novel, Go say it on the mountain. [1]

Little man, little man quickly fell out of favor and burned out, until recently resurrected in 2018 by Baldwin’s niece and nephew Aisha Karefa-Smart, the aforementioned Tejan Karefa-Smart, and scholars Nicholas Boggs and Jennifer Devere-Brody . [2] A tale featuring three Harlem children – TJ, WT and Blinky – that is told in both a black vernacular and a dynamic, child’s voice in search of who knows better than to subscribe to the fiction of innocence American, Little man, Little man is convincing because it does not condescend to anyone, child or adult.

Baldwin had the audacity to invest his young black characters with a perception and perspective that had already internalized the vexed realities of poverty, police brutality, drug abuse and racism that, in the 1970s in Harlem, you didn’t have to look far or far to see. In this way, Baldwin’s singular children’s book offers less in terms of a story-driven, digestible lesson – as Lester might have preferred – to perhaps fulfill a higher calling. Instead, we could read Little man, little man as a tool that can be used not only to highlight narratives – and people – that have been marginalized or ignored altogether, but also illustrate how we might reshape our own worldview, both as children and as an adult, through his complex and composed image. [3]

Products of meticulous research, memory, editing and imagination, they are as much poems as paintings.

It is this striking synthesis of visions that I think of each time I find myself in front of Becky Suss’s work. His work asks us to see differently, or rather, more precisely, if we accept that our adult memories of places, spaces and objects are often just as subject to the distortions and exaggerations of memory that our children experience. often delight. Memories can be both vivid and fleeting, lucid and surreal, distant and present.

Suss’s work imagines a space for such dualities to appear at once, perhaps each adjacent or superimposed on the next. His exacting and acute way of rendering interior spaces and objects appeals because his paintings seem to offer the fantasy that our memory – of a book, a framed Mughal print or a welcoming hallway – could ever be so precise. However, their scale, their perspective and their mode of composition – with certain accessories extracted from various sources – complicate this precision and evoke in each painting curious and enchanting asymmetries. Products of meticulous research, memory, editing and imagination, they are as much poems as paintings. If Baldwin’s book crystallized the notion of a “child-to-adult story,” then we might think of Suss’s work as a mark of child-to-adult vision.

Becky Suss, “8 Greenwood Place” (1988-93), 2021 oil on canvas, 72 x 84 x 2 1/2 inches.
Becky Suss, “8 Greenwood Place (my room)”, 2020 oil on canvas, 84 x 60 x 2 1/2 inches (canvas).

It is therefore not surprising that Suss painted an illustrated extract from Little man, little man. His WT, TJ and Blinky (2020) depicts a single scene from Baldwin and Cazac’s collaboration, where the three children treat a WT injury – a cut and bleeding foot, due to recently broken glass – before retiring to the basement apartment from the superintendent of their building for processing. It is, in a book that has previously examined what crime, surveillance, drug addiction and other, more subtle forms of violence might look like for children, the most gruesome moment in Baldwin’s narrative.

Cazac’s illustration, with no accompanying text to distract from its frantic and colorful depiction of shock and confusion at the bloody footprints on the sidewalk, is one of the book’s few double-page spreads. Suss displays it as such: the book is open on this climactic page, and the jagged, intense energies of Cazac’s watercolor images are juxtaposed with the softer, childlike renderings of flowers and plants that suggest a vintage tablecloth upon which the book sits, waiting for a reader. However, the image, in the hands of Suss, loses none of its power.

Whether child or adult, the artist has anticipated the viewer’s encounter with the painting in the gallery space, and recreated for him the act of discovery that takes place by turning the page of an illustrated text. . Suss trusts his viewers, especially the younger ones, with the maturity to process this moment. And for the characters depicted, WT, TJ, and Blinky, it’s their outside brought in – a moment of sheltered emotional and physical exposure, as happens soon after in the narrative. The painting exemplifies both the uncommon appeal of Baldwin’s book, as well as the composite vision that Suss’s work possesses, and seeks to invest in us.

Becky Suss, “Mirror (with Almond Blossoms)”, 2021 oil on canvas, 14 x 11 inches.

James Baldwin dedicated Little man, little man to the black queer painter Beauford Delaney, mutual friend of Baldwin and Cazac, and influential mentor to Baldwin in his youth. Of Delaney’s central importance to him, Baldwin wrote: “I learned light from Beauford Delaney, the light contained in everything, in every surface, in every face. Many years ago, in poverty and uncertainty, Beauford and I walked the streets of New York together.

He worked then, and still works, or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that he sees all the time; and the reality of his vision made me begin to see. [4] In the age of video meetings, remote learning, and endless streams of readily accessible images, our interior spaces – and ourselves – have never been on display so constantly. But do we really see in the middle of all this gaze?

Suss, already prescient in his focus on domestic space and the objects it contains – which, of course, also reflect our emotional interiors – dares to suggest that the finely appointed households in his work do not require design training or art history to enjoy. Young or old, they have become ours. The heightened qualities of sight which produced the work of Becky Suss are intended to produce in us similar insurgencies of vision, as Delaney did for Baldwin – we cannot and should not want to see again in the same way.


[1] Julius Lester, “Little Man, Little Man”, The New York Times book reviewSeptember 4, 1977: 22.
[2] James Baldwin, Little Man, Little Man: A Childhood Story (Durham: Duke University Press, 2018).
[3] Nicholas Boggs, “The story of the child for the adults of Baldwin and Yoran Cazac”, in James Baldwin’s Cambridge Companion (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015), 118–32.
[4] James Baldwin, “Introduction to the exhibition of Beauford Delaney Vernissage on December 4, 1964 at the Galerie Lambert”, in Beauford Delaney: A Retrospective (New York: Studio Museum in Harlem, 1978), unnumbered page.


becky suss

Extract of Becky Suss, available through Skira. Top image credit: Becky Suss, 8 Greenwood Place (1997-99), 2022 oil on canvas, 72 x 84 x 1 1/2 inches

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