1932 -

Dinah Young

Newbern, Alabama
About

I was born here in Hale County somewhere, in a old house burned down, over where I call "the swamp." I don't know exactly where. Talk to the lady up the street. She knows and I don't. She says it was somewhere down here in the woods somewhere, in a house that burned down. I was born in 1932. My mama did tell me that I was born anemic and had pneumonia, and the doctor had to come to feed me three times a day.

My mama come out of fifteen children. My grandmama had been a white man's daughter, and my mother had the white folks' hair. She had fourteen children herself, I think she said. We got plenty of Indians back in the family but I can't rake them up. Everybody else got that long straight Indian hair, and I just got me these old knots. I don't know why, they just popped out on my head.

Growing up, it was horrible; it was terrible. We had a lot of us, and the parents didn't know how to discipline. They was children themselves, if you want to know the truth. There's a adult part and a child part in everybody, and when adults act worser than a child, they can't raise a child. You have to have stability and attitude about you to raise children, to know how to make picks and chooses between them, and everything went bad. And never did stop going bad. Except I always seemed to be able to get to myself and correct myself.

As we grew on up, it stayed rough. Seem all we do was haul wood and water. Daddy was a carpenter. We all farmed. So we just suffered along the way, and we had to be our own parents. We had everything to do, and it was really hard. We always had to go in the woods and we had to saw trees down—big trees. We had to saw them up and put them on the wagon that the damn horse wouldn't pull. And every time we would put it on there, she wouldn't pull away. She would drop to throw the wood off, and when the wagon was empty, she'd go on. We reloaded it, and reload again, till we got home. She keep throwing it off, we throw it back on. We used to struggle, and saw our wood, and work like men—and the two boys wouldn't do a damn thing. The world's worse. We used to have to go down to the creek, haul our wash water. We didn't even have a well. We walk two, three miles over to a guy's house and got our water 'cause they had a well. Things we shouldn't have done we had to do. It was our duty.

We walked to school—three, four miles. The weather wasn't like it is now or we wouldn't have got nowhere. It's too hot now, and too cold, and it rains too much, or not enough. I walked from way up there to way down here. I went to the ninth grade here—it didn't go higher than the ninth—and then we had to go to Hale County to the training school. We had to ride the bus to school in Greensboro. But I just put it damn down and went to Buffalo, New York.

I had a cousin was real sick in Buffalo, New York, I went there to see about. I stayed awhile, two years or so, until she got back going. I come back—I was about twenty then—and I went to Birmingham. See, I had to leave here in '53, 'cause they had taken all the land and the crops away from peoples where nobody couldn't make a living. So you had to go somewhere to get a job. I went on my own to Birmingham.

In Birmingham, well, I played around there. Mostly I catered different parties, arranged big trays of food, and worked for people doing jewelry shows and things, and did housekeeping and nursing. Too damn much. I did cafeteria work, restaurants, and nightclubs. I worked for a wholesale jewelry company and did displays over in Atlanta, and I had to get all that together and decorate this and that, and table decorations to make. And I made a whole lot of corduroy things to go on the display tables and little carts on rollers. And all the holidays I was catering parties. It just goes on.

And I came back here. I always said if I ever got back to myself, God knows I'm going to stay. And I found two older peoples staying in this old house. I met them April 7, 1991. I was near sixty years old. They asked me to live here and take care of them. I also found that other house 'cross town, and the owner let me move some of my stuff in there. The woman that owned it, she lived in Akron, Ohio, and in '98 she went to bitching about how bad I kept that raggly damn house, and she tore up all my stuff. I had to carry the rest of the damn stuff over here and store it in the yard. I just want to whip her black ass—throw some gasoline on it and put a match to it—but it wouldn't bring anything back.

It's okay here. Some things about it could improve; the food's bad, so bad, and the chemicals in the food have changed my whole life. My hair turned to grass. And I never was so ugly, until I got arthritis. Oh, Jesus, I wish I could show you a picture of myself. I found a old picture a few years ago and thought, That's a beautiful woman, and put it back, and found it again the next year and realized, Ah, that's myself.

Insects bad around here. Mosquitoes so bad. They live a long time when the weather's bad. You think they dead when the cold come—go back there and can't even find a little old one—then it warm up, they thaw out, they get up and go. Gone. That's how I learn. I pay attention. And the little lizards—I thought they going to die because of no food in the cold. And I see them later and I say, "I thought all of y'all got caught in the cold and couldn't survive." But, I say, "Jesus, they're just like the frogs. Whenever it warm up, they go." And I was glad to found that out because it's been some nasty cold. Days and nights. I don't worry no more, not about the little creatures. Now, with all this rain you can't cut the grass when you need to. Do mosquitoes bite you like they bite me?

It's such a hot spot here so much of the time. During the winter you might freeze back in this little end, because the house is so raggly and it's shady. But we have so many hot days in the winter. It don't never stay winter. It switches to a hot day today, and a cold, and a hot day today, and you got to keep up with the weather, and then it switches.

So I been here ten years. Slavering. Nothing but slavering. You can't do nothing here, and can't get away if you want to. I waited on them two older peoples. One of them's dead now; the lady died last May. The old guy's in the home up in Greensboro. He'll be ninety-six, June coming. He don't even know me now when I go see him. I'll be here till I be buried. I'm not going to move no more. The peoples that own the house be gone now: on her side, the nieces and nephews, in Detroit. They has no interest in it. They didn't even come pay to move the body when she passed. The state buried her; they go in and bury you when the family denies you.

I take care of some yards around here. Used to do five of them. Only two now. They take care of me for my work. On the holidays they feed me good meals. We always communicated that way. I got a neighborly arrangement. I meant to ask you to bring me some animal crackers.

I'll be here when you come back next time. Where I'm going to go?

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.

The African American culture of the South has produced many of the twentieth century’s most innovative art forms. Widely appreciated for its music—from the blues and jazz, to gospel, soul, rock ‘n’ roll—the region has also played host to a less visible but equally important visual art tradition.

"The Road to Dinah Young's House"

By:
William Arnett

Newbern, Alabama, was once a small commercial center for the area's cotton plantations. Signs of a former prosperity line the road through town. The buildings at the center of Newbern are vacant and seem more like remnants of an old cowboy movie set than what they actually are, remnants of a morally flawed economic system that was replaced by something almost equally flawed, leaving places like Newbern flopping around on the sides of increasingly untraveled roads, gasping for breath like a catfish (the region's new cash crop) out of water.

I went to Newbern after meeting with artist William Christenberry and museum director Richard Gruber to discuss sites worth exploring in Hale County. Both men recommended Newbern because of its old buildings, atmosphere, and especially its "texture." When I saw the sprawling brick, wood, and metal warehouses (no longer in use), the patinated wood homes (one of them straight out of a Hawthorne novel), the three Colonial Williamsburg-quality churches, and the tin walls like patchwork quilts covering buildings all around the town, I could imagine the big smile on Christenberry's face when he first rode through Newbern, camera at his side. Christenberry's mentor, Walker Evans, was certainly impressed with the county's people, his and James Agee's subjects for Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.

Nowhere did I see any signs of African American culture. Not only could I not find a black neighborhood on this particular Sunday afternoon in 1997, but I could not find Newbern's black people—or its white people, either. Nobody was home in Newbern, but it looked like a place that could hide things.

I drove past the historic churches and turned onto a side road that seemed to lead nowhere. It took me to a black neighborhood, and each of the first four houses I saw contained one or more pieces of interesting yard art. One house even had an abandoned church in its yard. The last house on the street, a weather-beaten shack, was boarded up and partially enveloped in a tattered sheet of blue plastic. Clearly no one lived there, and I didn't notice anything unusual except neatly mowed grass. I drove slowly past, still not spotting anything out of the ordinary, just some piles of trash in the side yard. But looking back as I was pulling away from the neighborhood, I saw that the trash piles formed a near-perfect circle, resembling—or at least suggestive of—an ancient burial ground. Intrigued, I returned to the house and started poking around. The gravelike circle consisted of nine sculptures made of wood, tin, bricks and stones, plastic and glass jugs, wire, a car tire, and other found objects. Hanging from tree limbs were things—wrapped bundles of sticks, pieces of bent metal, and some twisted barbed wire that seemed to contort into a human face. Abstract sculptures, mostly of wood and stone, sat beneath and behind trees, partially concealed by fallen leaves. Every door and window was guarded, protected, or decorated by some form of carefully arranged assemblage. I had routinely seen protective charms near doors and windows, but never so many concentrated in one place. Most interestingly, no one lived there.

Finding out who created these works wasn't easy. There were six houses along the street, yet no one was home at any of them. There was also the question of why: why was this yard, surrounding an unoccupied house, filled with cryptic "art"? So I waited for someone to appear along the street while I studied the property. Passing back and forth between the house and the woods, I eventually noticed a subtly perplexing stretch of natural growth. I had walked past it at least three times without being aware of it. Something now seemed slightly out of focus—not quite right—about the plant life along the edge of the woods. I went back to examine it more closely. A segment of small trees, limbs, bushes, flowers and weeds, growing around the skeleton of an old fence, turned out to be not growing but intentionally placed. Not a thing within a twelve-foot section of the landscape was connected to the ground. The edge of the woods behind this nonresidence had been reconstructed by the shack's nonresident, and I realized I was looking at a very large outdoor flower arrangement, a three-dimensional still life. It could have fooled me. (In fact it had, several times.)

I was standing in an altered stretch of landscape along the edge of woods behind an abandoned house in a ghosty town in a remote region of central Alabama in which catfish farms seemed to outnumber people. I had been there for over an hour when an old car turned off the street. I followed it and met the residents of a modest structure at the end of a bumpy, unpaved path. A man told me that the place I had been looking at served to store the possessions of an "older lady" he thought was named Mrs. Young, who came to tend to it now and then, and who lived "somewhere across town on the other side of the highway." (In Newbern, "across town" means a one-minute drive, as opposed to "around here," which means a one-minute walk.)

So I drove down the only "across town" street. After a short distance, it veered off into another world, the world behind the movie set, a world of somewhere else, inhabited by a few secluded black people. After rounding a ninety-degree curve, leaving Newbern back in its own place, I stopped. In the side yard of an old boarded-up wooden house were several piles of wood (logs, twigs, tree branches), carefully positioned. Standing among them was a tiny, very old woman, her arms filled with a bundle of sticks that almost swallowed her entire upper body and face. I had found the mysterious and obscure Mrs. Young.

She turned out to be virtually deaf, so we could not converse. She also turned out to be not Mrs. Young. She was Ludelia White (b. 1914) and she did not live in this house, only "used" its yard. (Does every artist in Newbern have a studio?) Whatever Mrs. Young was doing, Mrs. White was also doing it.

Despite Mrs. White's fascinating work, work that would lure me back numerous times in the future, I wanted to find the real Mrs. Young. I yelled the words "Mrs. Young" to her, and she pointed toward the woods at the end of the street about two hundred yards away. As I walked toward the dead-end, I noticed an old cabin, barely visible in the deep woods on my left. Vacated by its owner over fifty years earlier and only briefly occupied in the 1960s, its bedroom walls were papered with newspapers and magazines, in keeping with an old African American tradition, and were almost perfectly preserved.

Since I had almost fallen through the decayed front porch, I left the cabin through a rear window, negotiated more woods, and emerged on a large, perfectly maintained, grassy lawn, a nearly football-field-sized private yard. In the far corner was a key-lime-pie-colored house, and between the woods and the house were numerous woodpile assemblages. Every tree, bin, shed, and post had things leaning against it. This was Mrs. Young's house.

"Unknown Dinah"

By:
Theophus Smith

When the poet Jean Toomer walked through the South in the early twenties, he discovered a curious thing: Black women whose spirituality was so intense, so deep, so unconscious, that they were themselves unaware of the richness they held. . . . They dreamed dreams that no one knew—not even themselves. . . . They waited for a day when the unknown thing that was in them would be made known. . . . For these grandmothers and mothers of ours were not "Saints," but Artists. . . . Creators, who lived lives of spiritual waste, because they were so rich in spirituality—which is the basis of Art . . .

—Alice Walker, In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens

INTRODUCING DINAH

Like the poet above, I took my walk through the South a few years ago and discovered a black woman's creativity that haunts me still. And like Alice Walker in the passage above, I was struck by two characteristics in my encounter with Dinah Young. She was apparently unaware of her own genius as an artist and—connected with that unawareness—she lived a life of "spiritual waste," as Walker calls it. For Dinah Young had littered the grounds of her environment with emblems of creative genius that she herself disavowed as art while nonetheless continuing to "waste" them all over her landscape.

The woman wastes her art like the Prodigal Son in the parable, who spends his treasure promiscuously and mindlessly, for he has not yet "come to himself."

Walker speaks of the mindlessness of these genius women in terms of insanity. "They were so rich in spirituality," she continues the passage excerpted above, "that the strain of enduring their unused and unwanted talent drove them insane." "Not so with Dinah!" we might protest. True, she feigns a certain absence of mind when asked about the significance of some piece of her work. "Oh, that ain't nothing," she might say in defiance of our perceptions of a compellingly artful assemblage. "That's just some junk," or, "It was just lying there like that." Nonetheless, we suspect a vast reservoir of cunning and irony in her disavowals. To follow Walker's clue: perhaps she wastes her art, and disavows its riches, precisely as a way of safeguarding her sanity.

Consider what it might mean to acknowledge that the craft of concealment becomes a constitutive element in the work of an artist who is concerned as much about camouflage as she is about creativity. But let us defer discussion about why this particular artist might prefer to camouflage her art. First, attend to the works themselves.

A WALK FROM THE WOODS

The works fall into four categories that constitute a kind of spectrum of sites within which they are located, ranging from the woodlands adjacent to Dinah Young's house to the house itself. Perhaps a better schema would represent the works within a topography of four concentric circles. (1) The outer ring comprises the woods beyond Young's property line and yields to (2) the open field, with a few trees, that demarcates her grounds and within which lies (3) the yard of implements and artifacts that surrounds (4) the house itself where she resides. The works themselves that are located within those concentric rings may be described in general terms as follows: (1) woodland sculptures, (2) field constructions, (3) yard craft, and (4) building-framed ensembles.

Woodland Sculptures. You are walking along a path in the woods and you are suddenly captivated by what looks like a natural pyramid found in nature. You are immediately surprised that two substantial tree limbs, five to seven feet long, have fallen into position in such a way, with their broader or flatter ends splayed out on the ground, while their narrower ends converge off the ground to meet in the cleft of a standing, still-living tree trunk. Together the three objects form a three-sided pyramid whose base sits on the forest floor. The framework for a lean-to tent is one interpretation that comes to mind. A more abstract perception suggests a funnel engineered to collect, store, channel, or "vector" energy of some sort.

Further along the trail, you come across another unlikely phenomenon of nature. A rotted tree stump sits low and squat on the ground while a short protuberance of sheared wood arises out of one edge of the stump. Horizontally straddling the stump is a detached, lighter-toned pole or tree limb that rests athwart its dark base. Again you are captivated and peer more closely to determine how that pole-limb could have fallen "just so." Your sense of an artful intelligence at work is strengthened not only by the balancing act that the pole-limb performs in relation to the jutting wood and squatting stump but also by another strange coincidence. A living tree limb from an adjacent tree, in the shape of a tuning fork, extends over the other two objects with a kind of sheltering effect or blessing-hand gesture. Viewed together, the three objects signal and signify.

On the alert now for similar tableaux, you are not disappointed. This time, a slender, vinelike limb with no leaves is found extending archlike from the ground where it is rooted (or inserted?). You are in no danger of mistaking this arrangement as a natural phenomenon, for the other end of the limb is threaded through an "eye of a needle": a shorter limb in the shape of a figure eight (anthropomorphic?) is partially encased in the ground and rises out of the forest floor to offer a large needle-eye opening for the arcing limb to penetrate and extend itself. Harnessing grace is one abstraction that comes to mind, but symbioses or conjugal relationships are also suggested.

Field Constructions. The versatility of the intelligence at work is further evinced as you depart the woods and view the space intervening between yourself and the house across the way. The moderately large space (perhaps fifty yards across to the house) hosts certain trees standing tall, separate, and isolated in an open field. But accompanying the trees are additional objects, appearing natural and supernatural simultaneously. Vertically propped within the embrace of their lower boughs, or else leaning against their graceful trunks, are large, singularly straight tree limbs or even small trees themselves, without limbs or leaves, uprooted and strategically placed. The effect is otherworldly, as if the tall trees had dropped down projections of some sort in order to make contact with the ground, or were themselves being assailed by foreign, more lissome relatives, less encumbered than themselves. Yet another conceit to which imagination gives rise is that of giant shepherds' crooks or prophets' staves, left resting in the trees while their supernal owners are temporarily away or otherwise invisible.

On the edge of the wood just as you enter the field it is fitting to find a more liminal construction. What would otherwise look like a stack of firewood awaiting portage to the woodshed or fireplace appears, upon closer inspection, to be more artfully arranged than any woodpile. Strata comprising wood of varying sizes and lengths are arrayed at various angles, beginning with the larger and shorter blocks located at the bottom of the stack and the longer, more slender pieces extending propeller-like at the top. The overall effect is that of assorted earthbound materials waiting to take flight; an effect that is punctuated by one lone stick, extending skillfully through the upper layers of the stack and emerging significantly from the top, into the receptive air.

Yard Craft. More ambiguous are assemblages of yard debris: kindling and firewood collected on sheets of tin siding, or found alongside a rusted automobile-wheel cylinder, or arranged hauntingly next to a shiny aluminum mailbox severed from its roadside stand. In all these instances, the question of artful intention is even more important than in the previous cases.

You may be tempted more vigorously to wonder whether intentionality informs these works until you proceed further toward the house, discover its treasures, and then look back upon the yard objects littering the space between and recognize anew their crafted character.

Building-Framed Ensembles. Finally, you reach the house and discover along its sides and frame another set of objects of varying composition and stature. Perhaps most engaging are the combinations of wood and fabric that render the house itself an integral part of this "installation" art. For example, one installation alternates wood and fabric in a way that suggests a massive weaving project or the construction of a loom on the same scale as the house itself.

More conventional is the fabric draped behind and framing a wood ensemble. The ensemble features a single tree limb that curves upward at one end where it balances in the air like a see-saw. The other end is grounded by a perpendicular supporting limb. Elsewhere, beneath the curved limb are other constructed works that ground, complicate, and counteract the motion and energy of the limb's aerial arc effect. Alternative construals suggest a ship under sail or the most graceful and organic machinery imaginable.

APPRECIATING ART THAT CONCEALS ITSELF

The assumption that art is only white man's work is built into the very culture itself. Art which pays homage to the idea of reaching all of society and influencing it, becomes embarrassed when it is actually expected to do so. ... [Works of art] which seemed like revealed truth when [presented] by the white artist have tended to cause doubt and embarrassment when [presented] by a black one. —Ishmael Reed quoting the "young White painter" Alex Gross writing in the East Village Other (Ishmael Reed, "Introduction," 19 Necromancers from Now (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1970)

Why does Dinah Young so assiduously deny the genius so evident in her work? A hypothesis lies ready at hand for anyone who dares understand the history and pathology of art appreciation in North America. By her disavowals, Young appears to be instinctively protecting herself from caricature as a "crazy woman" on one hand, and from censure as a hoodoo practitioner or "conjure woman" on the other. Ishmael Reed lucidly articulates this alternative fate for the black artist.

"So strange" is our racially contorted context for artist creativity that, according to Ishmael Reed, "one has to go to the supernatural for an analogy." In that connection, Reed expounds both a supernaturalist and mental health framework for black artistic production in this cultural context.

The Afro-American artist is. . . . a conjuror who works Juju upon his oppressors; a witch doctor who frees his fellow victims from the psychic attack launched by demons of the outer and inner world. (Ishmael Reed, "Introduction," 19 Necromancers from Now)

These representations of the black artist as conjuror, on one hand, and as engaged in mental-health conflicts ("psychic attack"), on the other, resonate profoundly with Dinah Young's antipathy to being identified as an artist in her own right. It is indeed her own right to decide whether to take on the onus-the black artist's burden-of being alternatively identified in this culture. Thus, Dinah has chosen; like a trickster she has chosen to outmaneuver both identifications. By her disavowal, she decides not to be identified as either (1) performing folk-magical art—“hoodoo" charms or works in the vernacular—or (2) being mentally unbalanced-daring to claim artistic stature and genius in a culture that caricatures a black woman who does so.

For Dinah Young has decided not to enter the racial contest that Ishmael Reed once described as our culture's artistic "rivalry":

Perhaps at the roots of American art is a rivalry between the oppressor and the oppressed, with a secret understanding that the oppressor shall always prevail and make off with the prizes, no matter how inferior his art to that of his victims. (Ibid.)

Perhaps the secret harbored by Dinah Young's disavowal of artistic identity is her "secret understanding" of this rivalry and its dangers-dangers that she has chosen not to incur. But perhaps she is all the more conjurational, all the more "psychic," and all the more a trickster in her very disavowals. Perhaps the most transformative art is the art that craftily conceals itself while waiting for an age that has the wisdom and integrity to finally appreciate it. Until then, despite all our contemporary speculations, Dinah Young remains our "unknown Dinah."