“An Idyll of the Deep South” and David C. Driskell’s Discussion with Aaron Douglas

As I’ve mentioned previously on this blog, David C. Driskell is a man who wears many hats—artist, scholar, professor, and advocate of the study of African American art being a number of them. But perhaps the most fascinating hats that Prof. Driskell has donned are those of storyteller and confidant. These aspects of his personality come across quickly when speaking to him in person, but they are also evident in his papers, adding life to this engaging collection.

One of my favorite objects from the Driskell Papers illustrates this notion. On four pieces of paper torn from a spiral-bound notebook, Prof. Driskell recounts a discussion that he had with Aaron Douglas in April 1971 at Fisk University’s Fine Arts Festival. The conversation centered on Douglas’s painting “An Idyll of the Deep South,” which was owned by David C. Driskell and featured in the exhibition Narratives of African American Art and Identity curated by the Art Gallery at the University of Maryland in 1998. This piece has always invited much speculation and study about its imagery and symbolism. According to the exhibition catalogue for the Narratives exhibition, “The Driskell Collection image is a smaller version of the third panel of Douglas’s mural series Aspects of Negro Life, commissioned in 1934 by the WPA for the Harlem Branch of the New York City Public Library.” [1]

During their discussion, Douglas revealed to Prof. Driskell that the star in the work was not representative of the North Star as it has often been thought, but rather, “a beam of light coming from the star was from the red star of Russia.” Douglas explained the pull of Communism for African Americans in the 1930s (he references Langston Hughes and Paul Robeson), and how these African Americans thought Communist ideals were enlightening. Prof. Driskell goes on to quote Douglas as saying “This red star was not strong enough—you see only a few being affected by it. But this is all history. I painted what was real.”

This recollection is handwritten by Prof. Driskell and delves deeper into Aaron Douglas’s life as an artist and as an African American man. The conversation also touches on patrons such as Mary Brady of the Harmon Foundation and “Godmother” Charlotte Osgood Mason, along with other subjects.

Below, you can see a scan of the entire entry.Click on the images to see them larger.

Driskell Notes on Talk with Aaron Douglas (April 1971): Folder T-132-13. David C. Driskell Papers: Personal, David C. Driskell Center Archive.

Driskell Notes on Talk with Aaron Douglas (April 1971): Folder T-132-13. David C. Driskell Papers: Personal, David C. Driskell Center Archive.

Driskell Notes on Talk with Aaron Douglas (April 1971): Folder T-132-13. David C. Driskell Papers: Personal, David C. Driskell Center Archive.

Driskell Notes on Talk with Aaron Douglas (April 1971): Folder T-132-13. David C. Driskell Papers: Personal, David C. Driskell Center Archive.

Driskell Notes on Talk with Aaron Douglas (April 1971): Folder T-132-13. David C. Driskell Papers: Personal, David C. Driskell Center Archive.

Driskell Notes on Talk with Aaron Douglas (April 1971): Folder T-132-13. David C. Driskell Papers: Personal, David C. Driskell Center Archive.

Driskell Notes on Talk with Aaron Douglas (April 1971): Folder T-132-13. David C. Driskell Papers: Personal, David C. Driskell Center Archive.

Driskell Notes on Talk with Aaron Douglas (April 1971): Folder T-132-13. David C. Driskell Papers: Personal, David C. Driskell Center Archive.

This is one of several handwritten journal-type entries that the Driskell Papers holds in the collection which are testaments to Prof. Driskell’s recollection and storytelling skills as well as his dedication to preserving the history and culture of African American art. Also, Prof. Driskell writes, “I had to all but swear to Aaron that I would not speak about its meaning, the star and ray, that is, until after his death.” To me, this indicates the trust and confidence that Aaron Douglas put in Prof. Driskell and the collegial relationship between these two artists and scholars.

PS—Be sure to check out our article in the SAA Archivists and Archives of Color Roundtable Newsletter this month! You can view it as a PDF here: http://www2.archivists.org/sites/all/files/AACv28n1.pdf

All images of documents are copyright of David C. Driskell, 2011. Gift of Prof. and Mrs. David C. Driskell.

This post was written by Stephanie Maxwell, Archivist at the David C. Driskell Center Archives.  

[1] The Art Gallery and the Department of Art History and Archeology at the University of Maryland, College Park, Maryland. Narratives of African American Art and Identity: The David C. Driskell Collection. San Francisco, CA: Pomegranate Communications, Inc., 1998. Page 80.

4 thoughts on ““An Idyll of the Deep South” and David C. Driskell’s Discussion with Aaron Douglas

  1. Dear Stephanie Maxwell, Thank this posting; I enjoyed reading your article and Professor Driskell’s notes are incredible!!! I was aware of the sessions between Douglas and Driskell and reading these pages was awesome. Because of my interest and research on Douglas I have an interest in viewing more of Driskell notes in the future at the Driskell Center. Jerry C Waters American Art Historian

    • Dear Mr. Waters,

      Thank you for the comment! I’m glad you enjoyed reading the post–I enjoyed writing it and doing a little research! I’m happy that you have an interest in viewing the Driskell Papers and hope we can help you with your research in the future.

      Best,
      Stephanie Maxwell

  2. Pingback: Reflections on 2013 in the David C. Driskell Center Archives | Driskell Center Archives Blog

  3. Pingback: David C. Driskell and “Two Centuries of Black American Art, 1750-1950″ | Driskell Center Archives Blog

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