My Dear Isabella
March 25, 1993 – Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston MA
My Dear Isabella,
My name is Madeline Bennett Parker and it is a pleasure to meet you and to be invited to your beautiful house and museum. I am an artist who greatly admires your museum and collection. I have been asked to share with you my feelings about your life and your work. I hope you do not mind my calling you Isabella. I have been here at Fenway Court many times hoping to see you and to talk with you, and now that I have been honored into your home I am eager to introduce myself in the hope that you would commission some of my work as I am in need of a patron and I have been told that you are a very thoughtful and generous lady to artists.
I feel quite comfortable in your house with all your things. And in spite of the fact that you are a very rich lady and I am an obscure struggling artist I feel as if I know you. Please do not think I am getting familiar, it is just that you have done with your life what I am trying to do with mine. You have manipulated your life to be what you wanted it to be in spite of the limitations you had. Your limitations are slight compared to mine, but still you have changed the way people look at you just by the strength of your own personal vision.
This is a very important moment for me to meet you and to talk with you in your museum. I have come here time and again in order to take in all that you have done here. But there is so much it will require many trips.
My first trip here was on the day that I first arrived in Boston. I must say I had traveled a long and hard journey over many months, and I arrived here so hungry and weary I could hardly stand. But still I came here to Fenway Court to celebrate my arrival, my freedom–and to fantasize that you had invited me here to become my patron.
I had been told that the lady of Fenway Court had a beautiful house of art and that I should go there and be in her garden and walk among her treasures…That this gracious lady was a Queen and her house was a palace, and that with God’s will she might see my pictures and receive me as an artist.
I am quite settled now and living in Boston, so with your kind permission I would like to come here every day and be in the garden and feel at home with the art you have created here. I feel a sense of peace with so many old and wonderful things.
The art in your collection is not so wonderful as the way you have arranged it. You have given all of it another life. I do hope that you understand what I am saying and in no way am I being critical of your wonderful collection. You call this your museum but it is more like your studio, for your hand print is on everything here.
I consider you a very fine artist in the nouveau modern tradition. You make art of collected rather than found objects, then you appropriate it as your collection. A lady of your class can get away with that.
I am a painter though I have made art in many different ways using many of the techniques that you use. Though I paint my own pictures I am fond of having them framed in cloth. I love to layer my art and have many ways of communicating my message. I am rather compulsive just as you are. I like to work on a piece until it takes on many meanings. I am also fond of traveling and incorporating many cultural influences in my work.
But I need to have a burning issue in order to do my art–one that I find so compelling that it never leaves my mind. For me it is freedom and self-determination. But aside from my art, slavery and women’s rights are my most immediate concerns. I know that you have not such a keen impression of slavery, so I want to share with you my opinions of this period knowing this is an issue you may prefer to avoid. But no one should be condemned for having bad ideas as long as they do not put them into practice.
Of course your life and mine have been very different. I would love to have a house where I could fulfill my every vision both inside and out and roam the earth meeting interesting artists and collecting art. You are a very lucky woman. But I don’t envy you. Because in many ways you are among those who helped make the world an ugly place. But I don’t think you know that, or that you would continue to do that if you knew what you were doing.
Sometimes I wonder why one child is born with a silver spoon in her mouth and another is born to starve. Is it luck or destiny? You were born in a comfortable home, with white lace and pink things all around you, what could you know about life in the fields? If you had been born black on a plantation instead of saying, “I was too young to remember about slavery,” you might have made Sojourner Truth’s famous speech:
Ain’t I a woman?
That man over there say
a woman needs to be
helped into carriages and
lifted over ditches
and have the best place
Nobody ever helps me
or over mud puddles
or gives me the best place.
And ain’t I a woman?
Look at me. Look at my arm.
I have plowed and planted
and gathered into barns
and no man could head me.
And ain’t I a woman?
I could work as much
and eat as much
as a man
when I could get to it
And bear the lash as well.
And ain’t I a woman?
I have born 13 children
and seen most all sold
and when I cried out
a mother’s grief
none but Jesus heard me
And ain’t I a woman?
That little man in black there say
a woman can’t have as much
rights as a man
cause Christ wasn’t a woman.
Where did your Christ
From God and a woman.
Man had nothing to do with him.
If the first woman God ever made
was strong enough to
turn the world upside down
together women ought
to be able to turn it
right side up again.
But Isabella, I am not condemning you, with all the best respect I feel you are doing the best you can with what you have. You were a young woman–and maybe you were too young to remember. After all–neither politics or business were supposed to be talked about at home. The [men’s] club was the place for that.
It seems there was no one around you to tell you different? When you were born a proper society lady had two interests–money and ancestry. Your father left among his many possessions “1 black man worth 50 dollars”–and your grandmother owned many slaves. There were proper Bostonians who needed cotton to supply their mills. And some of these people were your relatives and close family friends. It is hard to bite the hand that feeds you, especially if it holds a silver spoon.
I have just come from a meeting at the African Meeting House on Beacon Hill where I heard many anti-slavery speeches by some of the most brilliant minds of our time. They are simple humble people with very rich ideas. History will not be able to disprove or ignore them. Forgetting is as difficult for some people as remembering is for others.
They are my special gift to you. I have taken the opportunity to bring them along to meet you, though they are your neighbors and contemporaries, I doubt that you have ever met them. Please meet Frederick Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison, Harriet Tubman, Soujourner Truth and Maria W. Stewart. Each one will speak to you in the hope that you may pledge some assistance and aid in their cause.
Frederick Douglass is my name. I escaped slavery in 1838 at the age of twenty-one. I had as well be killed running as die standing. I founded the North Star Newspaper whose slogan was, “Right is of no sex, truth is of no color. God is the father of us all and all we are brethren.” I have devoted my life to the abolitionist movement. Just this night I addressed an assembly to applaud the courage of John Brown for attempting to capture the U.S. Arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia, and lead a revolt of slaves. John Brown was hanged for treason and now I must flee to Canada to escape, but before I leave I must make an urgent appeal for an end to passivity among slaves and an aggressive, even violent, approach to abolition. I do not wish to think, or even speak or write with moderation. I am in earnest. I will not equivocate–I will not excuse–I will not retreat a single inch. And I will be heard.
I am William Lloyd Garrison, born in 1805. I am a tireless crusader for abolition, women’s rights, and radical political reform. I am the publisher of The Liberator, an anti-slavery Boston publication.
I am Harriet Tubman, born in 1820, in Maryland. I was known as “Moses.” I brought over three hundred slaves to freedom in the North. In nineteen trips on the Underground Railroad–never lost a passenger. Among those I brought were my aged mother and father and all my brothers and sisters. My motto for my passengers was: “Go free north or die.”
I am Soujourner Truth, born in 1797 in New York State. I was an itinerant preacher and an abolitionist with Frederick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison. I spoke out for women’s rights during slavery when no American woman had the right to vote. I met and spoke with President Abraham Lincoln.
I am a writer and a teacher, an activist and abolitionist. My name is Maria W. Stewart, born in 1803, in Connecticut. I was the first American-born woman public speaker. I am a defiant champion of the abolitionist movement and one of the first women to speak out for the rights of women and all human beings. But there are not many who want to hear a woman speak in public, and so I have delivered my Farewell Address in the schoolroom of the African American Meeting House. I will move to Washington, D.C., to start a school for slaves.
These are my friends and my disciples, Isabella, they give me hope that there will be a better world. They are very impressed with the beauty of your art, Isabella, and are in hopes that your love of beauty is a deep-seated expression of your purity of soul. Their cause is pure and their needs are great. Thank you for listening.
Dear Isabella ,I must leave now with this message: I feel akin to all of the art and the people of the world. My recent ancestry is humble but my lineage is timeless and goes back to Ancient African Queens. No modern creation can escape the influence of my ancient roots. Now I feel that I have taken up enough of your time. But I do hope I will be invited to return. I appreciate your hospitality, your interest and your time. Thank you Isabella and Good Day.
Copyright 1993 by Faith Ringgold. All rights reserved.