Home > Uncategorized > Winfred Rembert’s American Journey – posted 3/26/2023

Winfred Rembert’s American Journey – posted 3/26/2023

No American artist has a story like Winfred Rembert. What artists have survived a near-lynching? Or grew up picking cotton at age 5 with other family members? Or worked on a chain gang while serving seven years in state prison?

Rembert, who died in 2021 at age 75, survived the most degrading and brutal circumstances. At the same time, he created beautiful works of art out of his painful and joyful experiences. His love for his home town of Cuthbert, Georgia shines through his art. Rembert’s story reflects an American experience that many endured but, to this day, it remains under-acknowledged. America likes to pretend it wasn’t what it was.

In his autobiography, Chasing Me to My Grave, Rembert collects and exposes the truths of his life. Tragically rejected by his mother and with a father who disappeared, Rembert faced very long odds in his life. He was raised by his great-aunt Lillian. From very early, he wanted to escape a dead-end life of picking cotton which seemed like it might become his lot in life.

He grew up in a world where white supremacy reigned. There were separate and unequal facilities for everything. A survivor and a rebellious spirit, Rembert was always being pursued by the police. About white people, Rembert wrote, “…they treated us like they would treat a pig, a cow or a hog”. The whites carried sticks and whips or things with which they could hit blacks for no reason. There was no law to stop the mistreatment and whites could act out with no consequence.

On the town green in Cuthbert there was something called the laughing barrel. White folks would say “Come here n—er!” And they would make blacks stick their head in that barrel and laugh at a joke. The joke was typically at the black person’s expense. If you didn’t laugh in the laughing barrel, you would get six weeks jail time. Lillian told Rembert that the key to survival was not to make any waves. You had to take the abuse or white people would kill you.

A turning point in Rembert’s life came in 1965 with the civil rights movement. White people were attacking blacks who protested or who tried to register to vote. Rembert joined a civil rights demonstration in Americus, Georgia. Armed white people violently attacked the demonstrators. Two white men with shotguns chased Rembert down an alley. To save himself, Rembert jumped into a car that had keys left in it and he drove off.

The police caught him and put him in jail. He languished for a year and no charges were ever filed. Out of frustration. Rembert stuffed a toilet with toilet paper so it overflowed. An angry deputy sheriff came into his cell, kicked him in the face and beat him. Rembert fought back and the deputy went for his gun. Rembert wrestled the gun away, locked the deputy in the cell and fled.

The police again caught Rembert and stuffed him in the trunk of a car. When they pulled him out of the trunk at a country location, there was a mob of white people with a rope hanging from a tree. Rembert was stripped naked and hung from a tree limb by his feet. The mob proceeded to beat Rembert with sticks and bats.

The deputy whom Rembert locked up appeared with a hawk-billed knife, grabbed Rembert’s private parts and viciously sank the blade in there. Bleeding profusely, Rembert wrote his scream could have been heard for miles. Right when Rembert thought he was a goner, another white man stepped forward and stopped the lynching saying “we have better things we could do with the n—er”. They shackled Rembert by the neck, waist and feet and marched him through the black neighborhood in Cuthbert.

Bryan Stevenson, the leader of Equal Justice Initiative, has written that near-lynchings were not uncommon. He wrote:

“Most people don’t ever feel secure enough to talk about this although we’re hearing more of these stories now. But Winfred was such a compelling storyteller, his personal narrative always included this and he was able to talk about it in a direct way.”

Before he saw any judge, Rembert served two years in jail. When he was taken to court, he had no lawyer and there was no trial. The judge looked at him and said:

“N—er, I’m gonna give you some time. I’m going to give you one year for escape. I’m going to give you one year for pointing a pistol. And I’m going to give you twenty for robbery.”

The judge sentenced Rembert to Georgia State Prison. He ended up serving seven years. In prison Rembert learned to read and write. He was locked up with a couple school teachers who were doing time for civil rights activities. They taught him. An excellent letter writer, Rembert helped other illiterate inmates by writing letters to their wives and girl friends.

From another inmate, he learned the art of leather craft. Beginning with making wallets, purses, belts and pocketbooks, Rembert moved on to drawing on leather, using assorted tools and dyes. His wife Patsy inspired him to use his art to tell stories from his life. Rembert’s life outside prison was a constant economic struggle until he started his art work at age 51. He worked many jobs, including longshoreman, cleaner and laborer.

Chasing Me To My Grave contains 75 photos of Rembert’s art. He drew juke joints, cotton field laboring, pool rooms, chain gangs, his search for his mother, his own near-lynching as well as other lynchings and their aftermath. It is a tour de force of witnessing. With great originality and in brilliant colors, Rembert depicts the Jim Crow South. For those especially interested in Rembert, there is also a documentary about him, All Me, written by Vivian Ducat and available on Prime.

Rembert’s work is a window into the past and where we have come from as a nation. Too often America wants to forget or pretend to a phony past but Rembert’s work is unforgettable.

Categories: Uncategorized
  1. jlewandohotmailcom
    March 29, 2023 at 12:03 am

    You sent me googling again. Rembert’s art is beautiful and powerful. What a shame that stories of such immense resilience and courage are hidden from us.

    • March 29, 2023 at 12:04 am

      He is a virtual unknown.

    • March 29, 2023 at 12:06 am

      So Jean, one other thing I will say. There is much more in his life than I was able to say in a short article. His book is well worth reading.

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