Art can redeem suffering, but it can also reveal brutalities that degrade the human spirit. Art can capture the hopelessness of individuals hemmed in by fences not of their own making, even as it portrays the hopefulness of scaling those barriers and strolling in the expansive paths beyond. In Chasing Me to My Grave: An Artist’s Memoir of the Jim Crow South, Winfred Rembert recounts to co-author Erin I. Kelly his own gripping, often harrowing stories of growing up in Cuthbert, Georgia, and of turning to painting to represent the atrocities and celebrations of his life.
Rembert opens his memoir by recalling the journey to find his birth mother, who gave him away as a baby. He stole away from Cuthbert and walked up the railroad tracks 40 miles to Leslie, Georgia, where he found his mother but discovered she was none too happy to see him. Back in Cuthbert, Rembert celebrates the bustling juke joints and stores on Hamilton Avenue, depicting flourishing scenes of Black men and women going about their daily lives.
Life turned bleak when Rembert was arrested while fleeing a civil rights demonstration in 1965. He was brutalized and nearly lynched by law enforcement officers and a gang of white men. Eventually Rembert was sent to a chain gang, which he describes as being “like slavery. You have to meet all those demands and keep a sense of yourself as well.” In a stroke of good fortune, Rembert met a young woman named Patsy, whom he eventually married when he was released from prison.
While imprisoned, Rembert developed his artistic skills, and he continued to carve and paint on leather until his death in 2021. His art, which is reproduced throughout the book, depicts the people of Cuthbert, his family and his time on the chain gang. “With my paintings I tried to make a bad situation look good,” Rembert writes. “You can’t make the chain gang look good in any way besides by painting it in art.”
Chasing Me to My Grave is a testament to the ways one man used his art to educate, delight and depict the trauma that arises out of memory.