New York Subways to a Mississippi Riverboat
Pickled Herring, Pickled Pig Knuckles
The Bronx, New York is not where I would have chosen to be born in 1933 and live in a brick tenement, but my parents, Sam and Helen Bernstein, were glad to be there. In later years they never understood how I could be content to call home a wooden house in a small town like Ashland, Oregon. But in 1964, Ashland became roots where my personal and professional life blossomed, and from this nest I also found wings to venture forth beyond the treetops for a broader world view.
In the Bronx my parents worked as house painter and seamstress in a pocketbook factory. From my childhood I remember the aroma of particular foods such as pickled herring, chicken soup, and borscht that integrated with our Italian and Irish neighbors' cooking, even drifting down to the streets where we kids played together. I was also nurtured by my parents' childhood stories, their memories of war and hunger in the villages of the Ukraine and Poland from where they had emigrated in the 1920s.
My identity as artist happened when I was about nine years old at Wo-Chi-Ca, or Workers' Children's Camp, where Charles White and Elizabeth Catlett were art counselors. They not only encouraged my creativity but also exposed us to their art, "images of dignity," created from their perspective as African Americans. They also spoke to us about Mexico and the significance of Mexican mural painting. Gradually I began to form a vision of future goals.
I first initiated my travel adventures in New York as I explored with my sketchbook the neighborhoods of the Bronx, Harlem, and the Lower East Side. I sketched my impressions of the Bagel Lady (fig. 1), the Newspaper Vendor (fig. 2), and My Grandfather in his Cherry Street apartment. I didn't know then that in the future I would also sketch the camels of Timbuktu.
My travels beyond New York began when I graduated from the High School of Music and Art in 1950 with scholarships, first to Denver University and then to the Cleveland Institute of Art. One summer, with seventeen dollars earned from a waitress job, I hitchhiked to St. Louis, where I got a ride on a Mississippi riverboat to Cairo, Illinois, then on to Memphis, Tennessee. There I slept at the Salvation Army dormitory and hoed weeds around cotton plants for several days before climbing aboard a Greyhound bus bound for New Orleans with a new identity.
It was a spontaneous choice. I sat in the back of the bus and at rest stops used "colored only" restrooms and water fountains. In New Orleans, I only altered one fact to coincide with my new identity. I told my employer my mother was Black. Black is many tones, many shades, and with my suntan, I qualified. I experienced the camaraderie of a taxi driver who helped me find a room with a family and a job. I waitressed in Rampart Street's Dew Drop Inn, where Big Joe Turner sang the blues and on weekends the dance floor filled fast. I sketched Rampart Street Blues (fig. 3), which holds lots of memories.
fig. 3: Rampart Street Blues
1951, watercolor, 9"x12", © Betty LaDuke
As a young person, words (books, songs, and poetry) were powerful stimulants. Words: Mark Twain's Life on the Mississippi and Howard Fast's Freedom Road; the voice of Paul Robeson singing "Old Man River"; and the poignant poetic images of Langston Hughes concerning his experiences of segregation, South and North. Now the signs I saw in 1951, "colored only" promoted my sense of curiosity and venture, which has continued to be an integral part of my life and art.
When I returned north to the Cleveland Institute of Art, my education continued both in and out of school, and I had my first one-person art exhibit in the lobby of Cleveland's Karamu House (fig. 4), an African American cultural center and theater. The exhibit consisted of mixed-media portraits of neighborhood people. My new friends introduced me to new foods: sweet potato pie, collards, and pickled pig knuckles.
fig. 4: Betty LaDuke, Exhibit at Karamu House
Cleveland, 1952, © Betty LaDuke
Pickled pig knuckles! I loved chewing gristle around bones. After all, I had grown up with chicken feet in my mother's soup. In the Bathgate Avenue market where she bought chicken, they clucked until decapitated, their feathers plucked, pin feathers singed, and guts cleaned out. We ate fresh, not packaged or frozen, and we ate it all including liver and gizzard.
In those days, markets were scenes of intense human drama amplified by smells, colors, textures, and the transformation of food from life to death. People touched, smelled, squeezed, and bargained assertively for their soul food, and since then I have enjoyed watching this process all along my route from the Bronx to Timbuktu.
All text and images © Betty LaDuke.