He was a white boy. That’s all I knew. I went to an art gallery in Memphis. I walked in with my ironed, clean dress and white gloves. There were only white people standing around with wine glasses drinking white wine with white napkins and nibbling on white cheese. The artist was Samson Beauregard. I was curious about his art. The newspaper said he painted “the reality of the South”. Hmmm. My reality as a black woman in the South was hard and bleak though a man named Martin Luther King Jr. was giving us black folk hope for a better future. Black folk all around the South were pushing boundaries and protesting. I was in college, a black college, and was studying art and accounting. My mama said I needed something practical to balance the impractical – art. So I signed up for accounting.
I ignored the leering eyes of the white people and looked at the art. Some were landscapes. Sagging cypresses and sagging plantations. And then there were black folk with exaggerated noses and lips. We were clowns. We were clowns bowing to white people. I felt a wave of rising anger when the white boy spoke to me. He had blonde, floppy hair and was holding a big sketchbook and a pencil bag. His face looked nice. His eyes seemed kind.
“Do you like these paintings?” he asked.
I stiffened. “No, sir. I do not.”
“You don’t need to call me sir and quite frankly, I hate them. Black people don’t look like that.”
“And how do you think black people look?” I was curious.
“Could I sketch you? I could show you how black people look. Well, I mean I could show you how you look. No black person looks the same. Just like with white people.”
I smiled tightly. “Are you an artist? I’m majoring in art. Accounting too. But art is where my heart is.”
“My heart is in the world and that’s why I am an artist. I’m studying art too. At Memphis Technical.”
“So can I sketch you?”
I felt a little flustered. “Where?”
“I have a studio two blocks from here. I have Merlot, Bourbon. I have some great lighting equipment. It won’t take long. I promise.”
I relaxed a little. I wanted to go with this white boy because I was curious how he would sketch me. Would he be as offensive as Mr. Samson Beauregard? I was a brave woman and I walked out of the gallery with the white boy with my head held high and proud.
“I’m John, by the way.” He smiled warmly.
“Mavis,” I said.
His studio was alive with color and creativity. It was a small space but glorious with paints, pots, mediums, lighting equipment and many other things. I wanted a studio like his.
“Just sit on the chair by the light. I will get you some Merlot.”
I sat in the wooden chair, sipped wine and John worked hard sketching. Then he got some paint and spent some more time. I was quite content sitting in his studio brimming with life and beauty. I wasn’t scared. Maybe a little. I was scared he would draw me all wrong. That I might be the black clown with flopping lips.
“I’m done,” he said.
“Can I look?” I asked.
I walked over and looked at the painting. I quickly inhaled breath.
“I’m beautiful.” I wanted to touch the canvas.
“You are beautiful,” he said.
I started crying. “You see me as beautiful?”
“Of course. I painted as I see you. A beautiful woman with a strong and proud soul.”
I kept crying and John just stood there and then hugged me.
“No, no, no,” I said. “A white man can’t hug a black woman.”
“I paint with color, Mavis. But really…we’re just two people making our way in the world. I can hug whoever I want. I can hug a kindred spirit.”
The next day, Rosa Parks refused to move from her bus seat. I was beautiful and someone stronger than me was changing my life and the world.