1933 - 2011

Chocolate Byrd

Boligee, Alabama
About

I was born over in Sumter County, Alabama, in 1933. They called the place Red Hill—close to Gainesville, I think. Daddy was always away, wasn't never around. He just visit in the summer or something, stay a day or two. My mother, she worked housework. There was four of us children. Mostly we worked in the fields. I left Sumter County and moved over here to Boligee, Alabama, in 1946. I met Neadom Byrd in '49. He was six years older than me. We moved over here to this place about thirty-five years ago.

Nothing too bad ever happened to us. Sho' didn't. Me and Neadom, we had ten children—six girls and four boys. I helped Neadom in the fields, mostly. Didn't do too much else. Neadom was a farmer his whole life, you know, and he passed in July '89.

The reason I put that stuff out there in the yard: for remembering him, Neadom. He worked with just about everything out there. I'm doing a lot of stuff just to make the yard look pretty. You don't see a lot of people trying to keep the old stuff like that. But I want to remember that time.

We had two Shetland ponies, back there. When Neadom was still living he had that bathtub out in the field for the ponies to drink out of, and my daughter Fannie—she live next to me—she put it out front and turned it into something for planting flowers in it. She got our old sink out there, too, from when she was growing up. You want to remember that time.

Taken from interviews with Chocolate Byrd by William Arnett in 1999.

Completing the two-volume set, "Souls Grown Deep, Vol. 2" takes the visual and historical presentation of the first volume to a richer level, offering an even broader array of artistic styles and media. Breaking away from the stereotypes that identity folk art and the South with rural, isolated, static and agrarian ways of life, these pages unveil an art that embodies social change and continues to flourish at the dawn of a new century.

Facing X Tradition

By:
Paul Arnett

Chocolate Byrd's yard serves as a way to remember her late husband, Neadom, and their life together. Items he used, such as farm implements, as well as his personal effects, such as shoes mounted atop a flower planter, surround an outdoor dinner table in front of the house. These envelop the family within him and his "spirit"—the principles he embodied, the works he performed, the character he projected. She wants their kids and grandkids to live within Neadom's example and his goodness. Arrayed in a loose periphery around the table and chairs, the memorials are therefore appropriately formally laconic, fatherly exemplars. In her project's constituent works, images of life (the goods and tools he used) abut images of ancestorship (roots, white stones, flamingoes), forming discrete vessels of memory. Earlier memory vessels, or memory jugs, were literal containers encrusted with mementos and, according to legend, placed on graves (later ones from the twentieth century were kept in homes). Byrd places simple tokens of endurance and connection with tokens of her loved one, transforming her property into an elaborate memory vessel, a valediction to a person and her relationship to him.

Several states away, in tidewater Virginia, James Arnold has created a remarkably similar yard memorial for a remarkably different conceptualization of the living past. He commemorates his life's journey from rural Arkansas to Virginia, where he settled after a stint in the navy. Arnold's site remembers the rural ways and the transplanted lives moved around by historical mandates—in this case, World War II. His monuments pay homage to the agricultural life of his youth. He encourages folks back home to send him materials from his hometown to incorporate into the yard.

For Byrd and Arnold, their yards are tethers to the past, sites of memory they have made because the site could/would not exist elsewhere. The micro-narratives of individual lives, steamrolled by history, find eternal life in the garden of memory. So the yard may be conceived by us as that implicitly radical moment when memory becomes history without recourse to institutional support or written texts or information storage. Political and spiritual mandates cannot be sundered here. These are not your grandmother's yard shows, as far as can be determined, for the most fully realized yard projects today are aware of, and revel in, their multiple roles. Your grandmother—actually, Byrd's and Arnold's grandmothers—wouldn’t have dared, because they'd have been roughed up, or worse.

As distinguished from the yard-critiques of a Dinah Young, for example, with her complex nuances of formlessness, these two yards seek minimal structures as a means of sharing themselves with an audience—not a spectating audience, but one of family (Byrd) and folks from the hometown (Arnold). These are precisely defined audiences, more rigorously and usefully conceived than the fuzzy folkloric notion of "the makers' communities." Both "the family" and "the hometown people the journey will sever you from" are conceptions of audience that require ongoing maintenance and interaction to preserve the desired bonds.