Connecticut College should celebrate its Black luminaries in the arts
A painting by the late Barkley Hendricks, who taught at Connecticut College for almost four decades, sold at a Sotheby's auction in February for a record $4 million, a sign of a resurgence of interest in his work, including a new book of his photography and planning for a major museum retrospective.
Connecticut College issued a short news release after the eye-opening Sotheby's sale. After Hendrick's death in 2017, the college sponsored a simple panel discussion of his work and included him posthumously in honoring five different faculty members.
Donors to the college, it seems to me, get a lot more attention and celebration from the school administration than a longtime member of the faculty who is acknowledged as a powerful force in the international art world, rising to fame with his arresting portraits of Black people. He developed the style after touring the art capitols of Europe as a young man, discovering that all the significant portraits were of white people.
Hendricks was also one of the college's most visible ambassadors to the New London community, a frequent presence on downtown streets with his camera and a regular contributor to Hygienic Art events and shows.
I couldn't help but think of the college's near ambivalence toward the legacy of one of its most famous faculty members, a Black man, as a luminary in the world of Black literature, a graduate of the college, is also barely remembered by the school, despite the acclaim for her latest work.
Gayl Jones, celebrated in a recent New York Times profile as a writer who Toni Morrison once said changed Black women's literature forever, is a star graduate of the college but is also seemingly long forgotten here. A Sunday review in the Times of Jones' new book, "Palmares," her first in 22 years, hailed it as genius.
Despite this new attention to one of its most accomplished alums, a Black woman, the college public relations machine has remained silent about her. Indeed, a search of the college website turns up only one reference to Jones, a mention that she, along with a handful of other authors, is taught in a single literature course.
The course description doesn't even mention that Jones is a graduate of the college.
The profile of Jones in the Times — titled "She Changed Black Literature Forever. Then She Disappeared." — describes her recent life as a recluse, refusing all interview and photograph requests. It describes some of her life at Connecticut College, where she was mentored by William Meredith, the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet who taught there from 1955 to 1983.
There's lots of acclaim for Meredith, a white author, on the college website, where you learn about his being awarded the College Medal, the school's highest honor, an honorary doctorate bestowed upon him and the professorship named for him, all appropriate tributes.
The Times profile of Jones, by Imani Perry, includes references to some of the letters, in the college's collection, between Meredith and Jones.
It also quotes from a poem, "Tripart," which Perry suggests provides a sense of what she must have thought about the scene at Connecticut College, as experienced by a poor young Black woman from the South.
"a very friendly
this is —
white kids discussing politics
and suddenly your nerves have a finished
form (half-digested rage)"
Jones and Hendricks almost certainly had a complicated relationship with the college. I remember when Hendricks appeared in the 1970s in national advertising for Dewar's Scotch, but his description in the glossy magazine ads made no mention of the fact that he taught at Connecticut College.
I would hope Connecticut College might do more to remember two remarkable Black artists who honed their talents here in New London. It would serve everyone well.
This is the opinion of David Collins.
Stories that may interest you