In the yard of the neat brick cottage in the "Black Bottom" section of Rocky Mount, North Carolina, are four standing figures made of battered cement and painted with gilt; the first is a black pioneer woman who may be Sojourner Truth; then, the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., astride a rearing horse; then, Jesus holding the Lamb of God; and finally, Abraham Lincoln in stovepipe hat and frock coat. If the garage door happens to be open, you might also catch sight of Sheriff Baker (the first black sheriff of Wake County, North Carolina); Dwight and Mamie Eisenhower; a crucifixion; a left-handed batter for the Atlanta Braves (not Hank Aaron, apparently); a black cat with a real bow tie; an ostrich of somewhat legendary anatomy; a kangaroo (ditto); a gorilla with a banana; Ronald Reagan (Old Turkey Neck Himself); a dancing street woman; a zebra; and a couple of extraterrestrial chickens.
The sculptor was a kindly and affable gentleman by the name of Vernon Burwell. Burwell would listen to your questions with great patience and then tell you about as much as the Delphic Oracle and the Tar Baby between them. "Poetry comes to a man when he is no longer thinking about it," said the Sung dynasty poet Lu Yu. One might be wise and leave it at that. But one doesn't. Why would an elderly black man take cement and lime and wire and rods and pieces of pipe and auto enamel and make everything from a roach bug to a president of the United States?
The biography of Vernon Lee Burwell is where we must start. He was born on April 28, 1916. His father sharecropped on a tobacco and cotton farm between Rocky Mount and Tarboro, He was orphaned at age thirteen and, over the next decade, lived with seven different farm families. He joined the Missionary Baptist Church in 1932, when Dossie Thorne was pastor. Burwell married in April 1942 and has fathered five children. In March 1943 he went to work as a laborer for the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad. After years of sweeping up and cleaning up, he became helper to a mechanic. During a stint in Waycross, Georgia, he went to night school, and in 1966 he was raised to the rank of mechanic. This involved sheet-metal work and pipe work on diesel engines and locomotives, and some welding. After thirty-three years on the railroads, he retired from Seaboard Coast Line with a golden handshake, but he was beginning to be troubled by diabetes and failing eyesight. It is a plain story, one that tells us little about Vernon Lee Burwell, sculptor of a surprising world of bright figures with tremendous animation.
Maybe he thinks it's pretty funny that a bunch of museum curators and college professors and collectors and poets keep coming around the place. I don't think the mystery is because Burwell is black and we're not. My philosopher friend W. H. Ferry makes a lovely point:
Let no one suppose that I assume that I know what black people, as black people, are thinking or feeling. I don't. I haven't any idea. . . What I do assume is common humanity. I assume that all of us, white and black, love our children and hope they won't grow up to be president. I assume that we don't wish to be pushed around, that we like praise and flinch under criticism, that we expect a raise far more often than we get it that we like some of our neighbors and dislike others. I assume that all of us share the same frustrations in the face of modem life, desire a fair shake when dealing with the law, and are willing to take thick with thin as part of the common lot.
The happy instance is that Vernon Burwell, in a social order chat had demanded service with a smile over much of a lifetime, decided to offer us the happy products of his imagination.
I once asked Burwell if he had ever heard of the music of Thelonious Sphere Monk, who was born on "Red Row," no more than a few blocks away in Rocky Mount, about the same year as himself. "No," he replied, "I wouldn't know about that."
I have a piece by Vernon Burwell called either Man Eating Banana or Man-Eating Banana. It's a scary work. As Burwell himself once said: "Rocky Mount don't know too much of what I'm about."