Cover Image: Chasing Me to My Grave

Chasing Me to My Grave

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Member Reviews

This magnificent book tells the story of Winfred Rembert's life and art, and is beautifully illustrated with four-color photographs.  His work is reminiscent of Jacob Lawrence's and Bill Traylor's and its three-dimensional quality can resemble quilting.  Rembert grew up under Jim Crow laws and experienced terrible events and circumstances.  He worked in cotton fields as a young child, rarely was able to go to school, and spent years in jail or prison for car theft and other offenses.  He experienced terrible violence while in prison and after escaping he was recaptured and hanged upside down by a white mob and nearly castrated.  A leader of the mob decided they could "make better use" of him by putting him on a chain gang and to work in cotton fields...again.  His various sentences added up to at least a life term but he was miraculously released after ten years: he had been dropping a letter everyday with his story and request for help on the road he worked with the gang. One day he was given a letter by prison authorities telling him he would be released in ten days.  He never learned how that came about but believed someone influential must have been given one of his letters.
     While in prison Rembert learned to read and write and do leatherwork.  After his release he worked various jobs such as driving heavy equipment, he married and had eight children, and in his spare time made various objects by carving leather and coloring it with permanent dye.  He began to carve scenes from his life which were so beautifully done and startling in color and subject matter that they began to sell.  Rembert exhibited his carvings in prominent galleries and museums and was a guest lecturer at colleges such as Yale, and his carvings sold for as much as $80,000.  
     A documentary was made about him in 2011:  "All Me: The Life and Times of Winfred Rembert."
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Winfred Rembert is someone with so many experiences that it's hard to understand how he fit them all into one life. He's most known for his stunning art, scenes from his past imprinted and dyed on leather. But he was also a cotton picker in rural Georgia, a civil rights activist, a member of a prison chain gang for seven years, an attempted lynching survivor, and a loving husband and father of eight. This memoir tells his incredible life story, alongside images of his art.

This book truly feels like sitting down and having a conversation with Winfred Rembert. His voice is so clear in the prose, and his art ties in perfectly with his memories. Rembert has had some incredible experiences in his life, but he doesn't shy away from sharing the hardest parts of his life either. This is a thoughtful, earnest memoir that packs in so much history of African American life from the 1940s through today.
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Wilfred Rembert is a man who has survived being a field hand in southern Georgia during the Jim Crow era; almost getting lynched; going to prison and working on the chain gang; moving to the northeast and entering the drug trade in order to support his family; then finding redemption, therapy, and solace in his artwork during his later years. Mr. Rembert tells the story of his life through his unique art, dyed and hand-tooled leather, as well as through his words in this engaging and thought-provoking memoir. Recommended for book clubs.
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This book reads like sitting at the kitchen table listening to elders tell random stories of days gone by. Like those times, there is an intimacy, but also disconnect between the different vignettes that loses something for the people who are external to the people and events being discussed. A separation remains that I found very frustrating. There are portions of this book that WORK when the stories line up with the art and offer the human experience of social phenomena. A bit more editing and coherence would have this easily being a 5 star, adopt for school, recommend to everyone book. ***This is not in the narrative style or voice of Mr. Rembert, but rather tying the various stories together to better communicate the larger narrative.***

The intro left me thinking I would be reading about the art and the lived experience of Jim Crow that led to that art. Instead, it is a loose biography, with lots unsaid. There are other portions that left me saying What did I just read? Why is there no context to this? Why are they leaving the things that explain these actions out? The legacy of Jim Crow and how it appeared in later parts of Mr. Rembert's life is missing. It's implicit, but really needs to be explicit. The narrative unravels without it, and turns it into a scrapbook rather than an art exhibit, to follow the art world comparison.

That said, it's a great jumping off point. Readers CAN and SHOULD do the work of finding the implicit connections here. If you have a book club that does that work, then this is a perfect read. If you don't do the work, then I would recommend other works that will better do that work for you. Doing it yourself is worth it.

Thank you to Winfred Rembert, Erin I. Kelly, Bloomsbury USA, and Netgalley for an ecopy of the book in exchange for my honest opinion
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Date reviewed/posted: December 17, 2020
Publication date: August 3, 2021

When life for the entire universe and planet has turned on its end, you are continuing to #maskup to be in #COVID19 #socialisolation as the #secondwave is upon us, AND the worst sciatica attack in your life means you MIGHT sleep 3 hours a night,  superspeed readers like me can read 300+ pages/hour, so yes, I have read the book … and many more today.

I requested and received a temporary digital Advance Reader Copy of this book from #NetGalley, the publisher and the author in exchange for an honest review.  

From the publisher, as I do not repeat the contents or story of books in reviews, I let them do it as they do it better than I do 😸.

“A compelling and important history that this nation desperately needs to hear.” —Bryan Stevenson, New York Times bestselling author of Just Mercy and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative

Winfred Rembert grew up as a field hand on a Georgia plantation. He embraced the Civil Rights Movement, endured political violence, survived a lynching, and spent seven years in prison on a chain gang. Years later, seeking a fresh start at the age of 52, he discovered his gift and vision as an artist, and using leather tooling skills he learned in prison, started etching and painting scenes from his youth.

Rembert's work has been exhibited at museums and galleries across the country, profiled in the New York Times and more, and honoured by Bryan Stevenson's Equal Justice Initiative. In Chasing Me to My Grave, he relates his life in prose and paintings—vivid, confrontational, revelatory, complex scenes from the cotton fields and chain gangs of the segregated south to the churches and night clubs of the urban north. This is also the story of finding epic love and with it the courage to revisit a past that begs to remain buried, as told to Tufts philosopher Erin I. Kelly.

Winfred Rembert’s artwork, exhibited at museums and galleries around the country and shown by the Adelson Galleries in New York, has been compared to the work of Jacob Lawrence, Horace Pippin, and Romare Bearden and was the subject of an exhibition at the Yale University Art Gallery. Rembert was honoured by the Equal Justice Initiative in 2015, awarded a United States Artists Barr Fellowship in 2016, and is the subject of two documentary films, All Me and Ashes to Ashes. He lives and works in New Haven, Connecticut. winfredrembert.com

Erin I. Kelly is a Professor of Philosophy at Tufts University. She lives in Massachusetts.

This is a deep book that screams "book club pick" to me - it is well written and surprisingly full of information that we should all know about:  I recognized Mr. Rembert's artworks but I had never connected them with a particular artist.  The Jim Crow laws were horrifying and most people probably had heard of them due to "The Help" by Kathryn Stockett and wondered why had I not known of them? (Well, I do live in Canada so missed most of these law's after-effects aside from the "coloured" window at Dairy Queen in Port Colborne, ON, which is now devoid of its sign but is still a bitter reminder of injustice that remains to this day. 

Read this book and take it to bookclub...you will thank yourself.
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