The little family—a college-educated couple with a precocious toddler— dwelt in Charlotte, N.C., until one day, when the darker-skinned father was out for a walk with his fair-haired boy, a mob thought he was abducting a white child. It was 1914, and the family, like 2 million other African Americans in the Great Migration, fled north.

In New York City, the father became a waiter on the railroad, the mother a journalist. The boy, Romare Bearden, grew up during the Harlem Renaissance, surrounded by the likes of writer Ralph Ellison, musician Fats Waller and intellectual W.E.B. Du Bois. He took it all in. He got an art education degree at NYU, painted at the Art Students League, sold cartoons, joined the army, studied philosophy at the Sorbonne, married, got a job. He wrote songs for jazz greats Billie Holiday and Dizzy Gillespie and designed stage sets for choreographer Alvin Ailey. He took it all in. He painted. And he remembered.

A hundred years after his birth in 1911, the Mint Museum in Charlotte celebrated its native son in “Romare Bearden: Southern Recollections.” Now traveling around the U.S., it is a visual autobiography of the man called, in his 1988 New York Times obituary, “the nation’s foremost collagist.” In his work Bearden returns again and again, across the decades, to Mecklenburg County and Charlotte, to the family. “I paint out of the tradition of the blues,” he once said, “of call and recall.” Roots music.

1960s: Collision and Integration

Bearden was cutting edge. In 1963, as freedom was ringing, he formed an artists’ collective to support Martin Luther King Jr. and his dream. He suggested his fellow painters collaborate on collage, with its echoes of Dadaism and of sharecroppers’ shack walls. The other artists weren’t as intrigued, but Bearden dove in. “The more I just played around with visual notions as if I were improvising like a jazz musician, the more I realized what I wanted to do as a painter,” he said. During those tumultuous times he began his signature work, “visual jazz,” about musicians. He kept his longtime day job for New York City as a social worker assigned to the Gypsy community, but there were exhibitions, magazine covers and accolades. He was able to use all the influences that had formed and informed him—Chinese calligraphy, Mexican murals, French impressionism, African masks, wildlife, women, city and country, past and present, North and South—in a medium that was the message. In the traditions of quilting, jazz and sampling, he borrowed snippets from different media and pieced them together—integrated them— into a mash-up of something utterly American and breathtakingly new.

1970s: Fruition and Recognition

If by any chance a worldly success comes, well and good,” Bearden wrote as a young man. “But under this system you have to be a combination of businessman, press agent, and phony.” His success had come: At age 58, Bearden left his job as a social worker to become a full-time artist with his own studio. New York’s Museum of Modern Art mounted a solo show in 1971. He earned visiting professorships, honorary doctorates, a New Yorker profile, a visit to the Carter White House and a Guggenheim grant to write an omnibus history of African-American art. He was commissioned to do book covers and murals (he did one for $90,000 that is appraised today at $12 million). And he kept making his collage paintings, often returning to a mythic South. The surfaces look increasingly timeworn, purposely patched, abraded and bleached. He wrote: “From far off some people that I have seen and remembered have come into the landscape.” They float in dreamscapes, mystical and mysterious.

1980s: Relations and Reflections

In the fullness of time, Bearden became yet more retrospective. He and his wife of three decades, dancer Nanette Rohan, spent less time in their Canal Street apartment and more at the house they built in the Caribbean on her ancestral island of St. Martin. They never had children, but the household usually contained a cat. Increasingly debilitated by the bone cancer that killed him in 1988, Bearden kept working. From a distant perspective in time and space, he repeated the themes of his earliest childhood. And if the artist, as he once declared, is indeed an “enchanter of time,” in that hall of mirrors Bearden was a master magician.


Originally published in the June 2012 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.