Edited by Robert G. O’Meally. Duke University Press, June 2019. 424 p. ill. ISBN 9781478000440 (pbk.) $29.95.

Reviewed March 2020
Lynora Williams, Library Director, National Museum of Women in the Arts, lwilliams@nmwa.org

 OmeallyRomare Bearden (1911-1988) had a varied career as a writer, social worker, and songwriter, among other roles. But art was at the center of his life’s work. He is perhaps best known for the rich collages, often of African American urban life, completed in the last decades of that career. “All of Bearden’s former discoveries seemed to come together in the ... collage paintings,” writes editor Robert G. O’Meally in his introductory essay to The Romare Bearden Reader, “the shallow space of Byzantine mosaics, the strong forms of African sculpture, the spatial harmonies of Chinese landscapes, and most significant of all, the carefully planned structure of Vermeer and the little Dutch masters.”

Like Bearden, O’Meally’s interests are varied, though tightly linked. He is a scholar of literature, jazz, and visual art, and author of Romare Bearden: A Black Odyssey (2008). In the reader, O’Meally draws upon his multidisciplinary scholarship to assemble twenty-eight essays and interviews from twenty authors to convey how tightly Bearden’s creative process and product was fused with the aesthetics of dance, music, and other cultural expressions.

The collection, which includes ten color plates, fifty black-and-white figures, and selected references, opens with O’Meally’s essay followed by a section that contextualizes Bearden’s work and includes a 1968 oral history interview conducted by Black Arts Movement activist Henri Ghent for the Archives of American Art. Section II is devoted to a series of Bearden’s own writings. Entries from Bearden’s 1947-1949 journal intimately detail his interactions with other artists, beginning with an account of a visit to the studio of Joan Miró, who spent a brief period in Manhattan. The third and final section includes reflections on Bearden’s work by many of the lions of African American literature, including Elizabeth Alexander, Ralph Ellison, Toni Morrison, Albert Murray, John Edgar Wideman and August Wilson, as well as other recognized scholars. The contributions are varied and insightful, drawn from exhibition catalogs, symposia, and other sources, and in lively dialogue with one another.

Bearden’s life was permeated by what art historian Lowery Stokes Sims has called an “artistic enterprise that had been honed by cogent and capable apprenticeships in art, music and literature.” Relatively few titles provide in-depth explorations of the intellectual lives of African American artists. This reader does so in a comprehensive – and compelling – manner, and should be considered an important addition to art and literary criticism collections, useful for artists, musicians, writers, and others.