Romare Bearden, Sunset and Moonrise with Maudell Sleet, 1978. Collage on board. © Romare Bearden Foundation/VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.
Maudell Sleet’s hands are enormous, a common occurrence in Bearden’s collages. As Bearden stated, “I want to express the handness of hands,” by which he meant their capabilities, their importance. He thought with his hands. “Whatever intelligence you have gets into your hand,” he said. Sleet’s hands are big enough to hoe, to farm, to do a man’s work. On the farm, cultivation might be a man’s job, but it was the women, white and Black, who kept city gardens. Urban men rarely did this men’s work. Maudell Sleet is built like a man. She has no airs, no graces; she doesn’t mess with much foolishness. She makes vegetables come out of the earth. To Bearden, this was magic.10
The bushel basket has plaited wire handles on each side, and its slats curve to come together at the bottom. These baskets brought vegetables in from the garden and home from the store. Turned upside down, they would seat a child. When the bottom burst open after years of use, they went to their reward as basketball hoops. They scattered along the roads of the South just as plastic bags now tangle up in trees. Sleet’s bushel basket is filled with carrots, tomatoes, leeks, and cucumbers—those little cucumbers that are sweet. Bearden seems in awe of her power, which turns supernatural as the cabbages and collard greens surrounding her become phantasmagorical creatures.
Of Sleet, Bearden said, “I’ve done her about two or three times; and each time the facial characteristics are different: I wouldn’t recognize her as the same woman one for the other, but it’s all right for my memory, because I’m recalling this thing.” Recalling, asking that something or someone return to mind, isn’t the same thing as remembering. He explained, “I paint out of the traditions of the blues. You start with a theme, then you call and recall it.” In the African American blues tradition of call and response, incorporated in jazz, Bearden didn’t just try to remember what happened; rather, he called out to see if the past would answer. One time, the past answered with a name: Maudell Sleet.11
“I paint out of the traditions of the blues. You start with a theme, then you call and recall it.”
Like Bearden, Sleet was an artist. Unlike Bearden, her work vanished annually. She began anew each spring. In her essay “In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens,” Alice Walker writes of Black women, “They were Creators, who lived lives of spiritual waste, because they were so rich in spirituality—which is the Basis of Art.” And of her own mother, she said, “Whatever she planted grew as if by magic. … Because of her creativity with her flowers, even my memories of poverty are seen through a screen of blooms.” Millions of southern women, Black and white, created their masterpieces in southern cities every year until, sometime in living memory, their environment vanished. Landscape architects, zoning officials, and city planners redrew cities and obliterated their work.12
Along with their gardens, these women vanished from the historical record. Bearden could not actually figure out who Sleet was, although he tried hard to remember her. She must have been a neighbor of the Kennedys on Graham Street, because he came to think that she had a husband: “He was a nice man. When he drove by, he would sometimes call me over and say, ‘Here.’ He’d give me some candy or give me two cents. … And he died before Ms. Sleet, and so she had to run the farm, the whole thing by herself.” On another occasion, he said that Mr. Sleet became a ghost and haunted the place after his death. There is no record of anyone named Maudell Sleet ever living in Charlotte. Or anywhere.13
For years I have searched for Bearden’s garden’s mother, even as I questioned whether finding her mattered at all. There are, most often, two main characters in environmental history: the environment itself and the forces that destroy it. Less often do we see the people who tend and sustain it, even though their work inspires great art and literature. When William Wordsworth “wandered lonely as a cloud” only to find comfort in “a host of golden daffodils,” he gave no thought, at least in the record, to the person who might have planted the first bulbs. When we do see small farmers in the historical literature, we most often rely on statistical composite profiles. And when we think about the environment and climate change, it’s difficult to imagine that one person’s practices can make any difference. As long as individual actions seem hopeless, a sort of catatonic apathy takes hold. I’ve looked so long for Maudell Sleet because she did make a difference. She produced the beauty that inspired art.14
No one named Maudell Sleet ever came to be recorded in any official document, but there was a woman named Maude Slade who lived two blocks down Graham Street from the Kennedy/Bearden home. It was likely her name, mangled by memory, that came to Bearden so many decades after her garden vanished. Born Maude Morgan, she grew up on her grandparents’ farm thirty miles from Charlotte. Upon finding herself pregnant at fifteen, she married Walter Slade in 1908. By 1910, seventeen-year-old Maude Slade lived at 607 South Graham Street with her husband Walter and his parents Celia and Edward Slade, a barber born in slavery. But while Maude Slade’s name came to Bearden, it was likely forty-six-year-old Celia Slade’s body that he remembered as the older, powerful woman, even as Celia put her young farm girl daughter-in-law to work in the garden. Walter Slade, who was legally blind, taught music and played the piano at the segregated Black movie theater. Maude’s daughter Arrahwanna was two years older than Bearden. These facts obscure as much as they illuminate.15
But this headline appeared in the Charlotte News on March 7, 1911: “Blind Negro Was a Gay Othello.” When Maude came upon Walter one evening “escorting” another woman home in a hack, a fracas ensued. When the other woman tried to jab Maude with a hat pin, Maude called the police and told them that Walter had assaulted her with a pistol and carried a concealed weapon. In court, Walter argued that he had not pointed his gun at Maude and, anyway, it wasn’t concealed. The white newspaper smugly reported, “When it was all over they were shooed out of court.” This sort of publicity would have scandalized Bearden’s great-grandmother and grandmother, the president of the local Black chapter of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union.16
Walter and his parents left for Washington, DC, sometime in the mid-1910s, but Maude did not go with them. If she stayed in their house, Celia’s garden would have become hers, and Bearden’s family might have referred to the deserted woman in hushed tones. They may have talked about Walter as Maude’s “ghost husband,” a common term at the time for a legally married man who had deserted his wife. In Washington, Edward became a successful barber again. Walter beat out Duke Ellington in a jazz performance contest and, by 1920, eleven-year-old Arrahwanna lived with them. Some years later, Maude and Walter patched up their marriage, and Maude moved to Washington, where she lived with the Slade family and worked as a maid in a hotel. If one wrote a biography of Maude Slade, as art historians do, it would resonate with the metahistory of African American life in the first half of the twentieth century.17