Thursday, December 18, 2014

Alvin Ailey, Dorothea Lange and the Brazos River Bottom

 My oldest friend is a gifted storyteller, a raconteur of the first rank. He has his thumb squarely on the pulse of a community near the confluence of the Navasota and Brazos rivers. As those two rivers snake toward their meeting near where my friend calls home, fertile bottom land has been created by the rivers leaving part of themselves behind after millennia of flooding over their cut banks.

Travelling through the sliver of land between the Navasota and Brazos is akin to travelling back in time. The land is still used for it's highest and best purpose, growing cotton. I drive through the bottoms most often on my way back to my office in Bryan from the town of Brenham, Texas. Dodging combines, tractors and trucks, I sometimes stop and gaze at the abandoned yet extant shanties there. I think about the insular world that must have existed before the second World War brought change.

Strangely, insight into that world came from a strange confluence of it's own. New York City, the Library of Congress, and my friend the storyteller.

 First, New York City. I was there several years ago walking south of Columbus Circle when I saw the glass and steel tower housing the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater at the corner of 9th Avenue and 55th. It seemed a world away from where I sometimes travel in that sliver of land between the Navasota and Brazos. As it turns out, no so much, really.

I knew of Alvin Ailey as I stood near the building that bore his name. I knew, for example, he was a famous dancer and choreographer. A gay man of color. What I did not know was he spent his formative youth - from the age of six to twelve - in Navasota, Texas 30 minutes from where I live, near the river for which it is named and a short drive from where I stop to think about a time of segregation and tenant farmers.

About the time Alvin Ailey was growing up in Navasota, taking from it inspiration for his masterpieces Revelations and Blue Suitethe photographer Dorothea Lange visited the river bottom near where he lived.

 Lange is famous for her photography of migrant workers during the depression. She is best known for the iconic 1936 photograph of Florence Owens Thompson, displayed in the Library of Congress, titled "Migrant Mother":

Lange visited the Brazos River bottom in June of 1938 when Ailey would have been eight years old. It makes my head swim to think of these two world class artist, one at the height of her powers, the other, gathering life experiences, even at his tender age, that would make him famous years later. Each unaware the of other.

Here is one of the photographs Lange took in the bottom. Her remarks accompanying read:

 "Negro sharecropper with twenty acres. He receives eight cents a day for hoeing cotton. Brazos riverbottoms, near Bryan Texas. 'Some of  'em don't get nothin'. They just make these niggers chop that cotton.' Few leave the bottoms. 'They ain't got nothin' to go on.'''      

This is the world Ailey was experiencing. He left Navasota four years later, in 1942, to follow his mother and opportunities the War brought her to Los Angeles. I can only imagine what it must have been like for him at 12 years of age to step off a train in L.A. after spending his known life in and around the environment depicted in by Lange. He must have thought he was on Mars. For better and for worse, the attitudes and influences he brought from the river bottom never really left him.

It is also a long way from Midtown in the City.

Which brings me to my friend the storyteller. He tells of a killing that took place following World War II, after African-Americans had not only sacrificed lives in conflict, but experienced Europe and more egalitarian attitudes there. The old order of the Brazos river bottom near Navasota and Bryan no longer made sense to those who served and returned .

Change in a place of shanties and tenant farmers comes slowly, if at all. This African American tried organizing tenant farmers still living and working in the bottom. He was shot dead for it after a confrontation with a tenant landlord.

Nothing much happened to the white man who shot him, says my storytelling friend.

Ailey and Lange give us, simultaneously, a snapshot into that time and themselves. Layered, nuanced, profound. Always beautiful.

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