On Facebook I follow the group "The Golden Age of Illustrations," along with some 148,000 others. The images are lush, gorgeous, brilliant. This one stopped me in my tracks. A naked black woman. And is that Jesus? The post explained that the illustration, by John Farleigh, appears in the 1933 book, The Adventures of the Black Girl in Her Search for God. The author? One Bernard Shaw. As in George the playwright.
It's nearly impossible to find images of black people in this feed. The men, women and children are usually pink and rosy-cheeked. I immediately clicked "Like" when I came across a cartoon by E. Simms Campbell, an African-American artist whose works were the first to appear in popular national publications, including Life magazine in 1931, and created Esquire's wide-eyed mascot, Esky.
I wanted to know more. So I did what any other self-respecting arbiter of instantaneous gratification in the 21st century would do.
I tracked down a copy of said book online and ordered it from Amazon.
A week later my used copy arrived from Better World Books. The cost? $7.62 including tax. Slim at seventy-five pages, this particular volume one graced the shelves of Middlebury College. There's even a pocket containing a checkout card glued onto the artwork—row upon row of a nestling Black Girl—that wallpapers the inside back cover. It is unmarked. Does this mean one at Middlebury ever borrowed it from the library? I find my answer minutes later when I examine the seal. The red stamp reads, "WITHDRAWN."
Commenters on the Facebook post that sent me on my own adventure speculate that Shaw's work must have been highly controversial at the time. I don't doubt it. As it would be today. The confluence of highly charged themes such as religion, race, sex and interracial marriage inspired no less than five reprintings of the book plus copycats, satirical and serious, dedicated to the white girl and the brown girl.
Adventures begins with a question.
"Where is God?" said the black girl to the missionary who had converted her.
"He has said 'Seek and ye shall find Me,' said the missionary." And we're off to the jungle, I mean, races.
In the satirical allegory, the black girl carries a knobkerry, or club—and a bible—on her quest. All the better to guide and protect her from the assorted characters she meets: a mamba snake, two different versions of Jesus, Muhammad, an Irish socialist and more. One could debate which of the two objects is more of a weapon.
On the receiving end of Shaw's metaphoric knobkerry are religion and philosophy, which he brutally lampoons. In a seventeen-page essay at the end of the book, he ruminates over why he was compelled to write this tale after a stay in South Africa. He then steps back from his creation, like God in Genesis, to examine it afresh:
"I take it that the missionary lifted her straight out of her native tribal fetichism into an unbiassed contemplation of the Bible with its series of gods marking stages in the development of the conception of God from the monster Bogey Man to the Father; then to the spirit without body, parts, nor passions; and finally to the definition of that spirit in the words God is Love."
Spoiler alert: In the end, the black girl, who triumphs spectacularly through her intellect, determines that love isn't enough. Rather than gallivanting about in an attempt to unearth the secrets of existence, he postulates it's better that she stay home and bring up her children (she meets her husband on the journey). Only, Shaw uses the word, "piccaninnies."
I examine the nineteen black-and-white illustrations some more. Yes, they are exquisitely rendered. This much I can appreciate. I feel somewhat guilty for not being more appalled by her nakedness. She is beautiful, bearing none of the stereotypical features attributed to black women. Black girl is no mammy.
I think on the unease I now feel when I look at Gauguin's paintings. I used to adore the brown figures in his Tahiti series. People of color are a rarity on museum walls. Decades ago I brought back with me from my first trip to Paris a Gauguin poster purchased at the Louvre. I commissioned a friend's artist father to make one of his handcrafted wooden frames for it and proudly hung it in my various dwellings over the years. Now that I know they were children, I can never look at his work with the same eyes. The poster has been relegated to a closet. Instead of lingering at such paintings, I found myself scurrying by during recent museum visits.
I place the volume on display in my bedroom. I remain undecided. Riveted but undecided.
I like to make stuff...and think about stuff.