My Dinner with David Driskell

I have read many of the tributes marking David Driskell’s death and they rightfully mention his enormous achievements.¬† However as one who met him I just wanted to remind folks that he was a wonderful man too. Over the course of my career I have had dinner with many of the the celebrity African Americans who came to my campus to speak. I just saw it as part of the job. Some impressed, some did not. One I will always remember was an unofficial private dinner arranged through an art historian colleague who was a great friend of David Driskell. She, my wife and I had dinner at his Maine summer home and studio with him and his wife. As a young man he had come to the Skowhegan art colony in Maine, liked the state so much that he became a part time Maine resident. He was the most sociable of people. We had a delightful, wide ranging conversation about life, academia, art and so many other things. His wife and mine hit it off so well that Mrs. Driskell would afterwards call my wife to go on shopping expeditions or just to talk. He regaled us with tales about how there were so few African Americans in Maine in his early days there, that turnpike toll-keepers many miles away could direct visitors to his house. As we talked it became clear how different our paths to academia had been. I had ridden an early wave of predominantly white institutions seeking to broaden their diversity by inviting African Americans into their parlors. He had come up in an era of strict segregation in which gaining a quality education and later academic employment was a much harder battle. He had moved around the HBCU circuit fighting for “Negro” art to become accepted by the white art world. Now of course it is recognized as part of the American art canvass. He was only about 20 years my elder so this massive shift had occurred just yesterday as historical time goes. As a pioneer he had gotten to know many of the African American artists of the 40’s 50’s and later, who were like him struggling to secure respect and recognition for their art. He had formed a strong personal bond between him and those I knew only from their work and the scholarship (including much of his own) devoted to them. At one point in our conversation he invited me out to his studio to show me something that illustrated a point we had been discussing. As he sifted through some completed canvases propped haphazardly in a corner, one struck my eye. When I mentioned it to him he stopped to pull it out of pile and said “that’s just something Jake gave to me.” “Jake” was Jacob Lawrence and the piece was an unknown Lawrence painting that any museum would give its eye teeth to have. I hope it eventually made its way into some collection or exhibit, but to David it was just part of the things picked up along the way.

I have always seen myself as incredibly lucky. Oh I worked hard and diligently, but that evening it came into focus how much harder it had been for David to achieve what he did. He was unpretentious about it; just shrugging it off as what you had to do in those days. To me it just magnifies his achievements and shows how special he was. Rest in peace David. You created generations of scholars, inspired dozens of artists, and made many, many friends along the way.

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