Book Review: I Always Knew: A Memoir
by Barbara Chase-Riboud
Publication Date: Oct 04, 2022
List Price: $39.95
Format: Hardcover, 480 pages
Imprint: Princeton University Press
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Parent Company: Princeton University
Read a Description of I Always Knew: A Memoir
Book Reviewed by Robert Fleming
This country rarely acknowledges the celebrated triple threats of the arts in our community. Consider Barbara Chase-Riboud, the noted African-American visual artist, sculptor, popular novelist, and award-winning poet.
Her memoir, I Always Knew, is a fitting tribute to the talents and creativity of Riboud, a native of Philadelphia and the only child of a technician and a contractor. It features 600 letters written to her mother from 1957 to 1991, discovered in a small blue box discovered in her parent’s clothes closet. The author suggests the memoirs’ title was influenced by the acerbic American wit, Gore Vidal.
Chase-Riboud, ever the literary maverick, does not do the conventional format of the memoir, instead she flips the concept on its ear. “It is made of letters to my Mom that I sent from Europe over a period of 50 years. I didn’t even know what I was writing. I was just sending love, gossip, recording what I was feeling, doing, and seeing. I didn’t save any of her cards, but if you read my letters, you can imagine what she said. It’s a very funny one-side conversation.”
The artist is rooted to the cultural traditions and moral strength of her family, namely her late grandmother, who dismissed the victimology of the abused minorities. “Making things look easy is a matter of politeness,” her granddaughter recalls. “Letting people know you are carrying a heavy burden is a third-world attitude toward life.”
Things were not easy right from the start for Chase-Riboud. She struggled with the departure of her father for his mistress while still in her childhood. At four years old, she suffered from polio, with her grandfather, carrying her, ran to the Children’s Hospital in Philly. A white nurse said they didn’t treat colored infants. A young intern saved her life, confining the child to several months of iron lung.
Absent from these letters are the usual bitter and angry emotions found in some memoirs of those who have scaled the wall of opportunity. It is as though Chase-Riboud refuses to let anything to deter her quest to creative experience and achievement, without any input from her mother. “It’s a book about perfection, about striving, about ambition and youth, about years when one’s purpose in life was to learn everything you could learn, understand everything you can understand, do everything you could do: travel, read, study literature, art, and philosophy, absorbing it all in order to figure out who you are and who you might become.”
Along the way, Chase-Riboud explores new artistic directions, all recalled nonchalantly. She sold her first artwork to the Museum of Modern Art at the age of 15. She explains how hard she worked to graduate as the first woman of color earning MFA from Yale. Following her graduation, she left America for Europe, as a wide-eyed ingenue eager to learn the ropes of the elite jet set.
Politically, Chase-Riboud absorbed the European concept of the world, namely America. She was aware of the horrors of Jim Crow, but she desired a more cosmopolitan view. “What about this Russian satellite?” she wrote. “I didn’t know anything about it until it had circled the globe for three days. America must be hysterical…Most of the French seems rather pleased. They really believe in this balance of power idea and they are just afraid of the U.S. as they are of Russia.” From her perch across the Atlantic, the artist shaped her political and cultural perspectives from travel around the world: the Middle East, China, Mongolia, the Soviet Union, and Africa. In 1969, she attended the Pan-African Festival in Algiers, meeting the Black Panther founder Huey Newton and Eldridge and Kathleen Cleaver.
Ever the artist, she worked constantly on her bronze scriptures and drawings, with two exceptional pieces, Last Supper and Bullfighter (1958), Malcolm X (1970), Confession For Myself (1973), Cleopatra’s Cape (1973), Africa Rising (1998), and Mao’s Organ (2008). She exhibited her work at the Whitney Museum of Modern Art, the Newark Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art in Iran, and Centre Pompidou in Paris. From September 2013 t0 January 2014, she exhibited artwork in a retrospective, We Speak: Black Artists in Philadelphia 1920s-1970s at the Woodmere Art Museum.
What an exceptional life this Philly woman has lived during one of the most pivotal period in our times! Along with her visits to villas and castles among counts and princes, she has met some amazing personalities: Josephine Baker, James Baldwin, Alan Bates, Ben Shahn, Alexander Calder, Angela Davis, Ralph Ellison, Pierre Cardin, Salvador Dali, Mao Zedong, Lee Miller, Inge Morath, and Henri Cartier-Bresson. She mixed and mingled with these celebrities with zest and style.
As well as her career as an artist, she wrote verses, producing her first poetry collection, From Memphis & Peking (1974), followed by another volume, Portrait of a Nude Woman as Cleopatra (1988), which won the Carl Sandburg Award. In 2014, she published Everytime a Knot is Undone, a God is Released: Collected and New Poems 1974- 2011.
Chase-Riboud gained international acclaim with the publication of her first novel, Sally Hemmings in 1979. Despite sales in the millions, controversy haunted her realistic depiction of Hemmings as a slave and her spicy mistress relationship with President Thomas Jefferson. It was a Book-of-the-Month Club selection, winning the Janet Heidinger Kafka Prize. She followed this hit with Valide: A Novel of the Harem (1986), Echo of Lions (1989), The President’s Daughter (1994), Hottentot Venus: A Novel (2003), and The Great Mrs. Elias (2022). In 2022, she was knighted by the French government and awarded the Legion d’Honneur.
Chase’s first husband, Marc Riboud, a famous photographer of the influential Mangum group. She describes him as caring, loving and supportive to her work in the letters. They had two sons. Following their divorce, she married again to Sergio Tosi, an art publisher and expert. The artist doesn’t dish the dirt about her union.
Three intriguing comments from her book of letters reveal so much of her consciousness. There are so many thoughtful gems throughout the book. Contrary to some critics of her exile and calm personality, she addresses the hypocritical, sometimes scathing remarks about her supposed neutrality. “Distance lends perspective,” she writes. “And this perspective is one of the most precious gifts any artist can hope for. It is this bird’s eye view of one’s own country that permits a true appreciation of its strengths and weaknesses, of what we have and what we lack.”
Pundits say Chase-Riboud is writing for a global readership unschooled and allergic to complex thought. “How much joblessness and poverty are linked to illiteracy? One thing is certain, these days one no longer asks for a job, one has to read and write for one — to deny any citizen or the children of any citizen the right to literacy is to leave them behind permanently in the ghetto of impoverished language and understanding and the inability to master one’s native language is often forgotten.”
One last jewel comes in her alert analysis of the political moment. “I love the way say this is a ‘culture war:’ it’s nothing to do with culture. It has to do with power, it has to do with history, it has to do with the suppression of half of the population in the United States of America.”
This book is a treasure of contemporary art, travel, love, in an era of political and cultural upheaval. You come away with so many ideas and insights. She possesses a fantastic personal voice, witty, assured, without pretension or guile. Come along, readers, and share her splendid dream.