In this posthumous work, artist Rembert (1945–2021) offers a powerful, unfiltered look at life growing up in Jim Crow Georgia. “This was a time when everybody was above the law—if you were White... they just made up their mind about what they wanted to do with you and that’s what they did,” he recalls of his childhood growing up with his great-aunt. Even from a young age, Rembert was exposed to murders, mutilations, and humiliations designed to break and degrade the Black residents in his town. His artwork vividly showcases harrowing moments in his life, from picking cotton in endless fields to the horrors of being on a chain gang in prison for stealing a car (to escape a “White mob”). Especially graphic is his account of narrowly surviving his own lynching: “They hung me up by my feet in a tree... and stuck me with the knife... I was bleeding like a hog.” Despite his incredible hardships, Rembert highlights the beauty he encountered, such as the kindness of strangers and his wife, Patsy, who encouraged him to “turn my stories into art.” This is a stunning portrait of hope in the face of evil, barbarity, and racism. Agent: Stephanie Steiker, Regal Hoffman & Assoc. (Aug.)Correction: An earlier version of this review misstated where the author grew up.
From the Publisher
Visually stunning . . . Rembert’s brutally honest storytelling helps us see the sacrifice and grit it took for Black Americans to survive in the Jim Crow South, something he said should make families proud and want to talk about their history.”- Debbie Elliott, NPR
“This is a book like no other, from Winfred Rembert’s unique and uniquely powerful autobiographical paintings to his disturbing and courageous life story . . . Rembert recounts diabolical abuse and violence with rare candor and precision . . . By using carved, tooled, and dyed leather as the medium for vibrantly patterned scenes from his life, Rembert turned the scars on his body and soul into artworks of clarion witness and reckoning. With a foreword by Bryan Stevenson and superb color reproductions, Rembert’s self-portrait in word and image belongs in every library.” - Donna Seaman, Booklist, starred review, "Best Books of the Year"
“With the most original of canvases . . . Chasing Me to My Grave is an illustrated autobiography of plain-spoken pains and moments of strength, alongside vernacular art that stops you short. Rembert died at 75, last spring; this is the memorial he should have lived longer to enjoy.” - Chicago Tribune
“One-of-a-kind . . . Chasing Me to My Grave is a stunning piece of visual truth-telling. Featuring a foreword by Bryan Stevenson, it’s a stark reminder of our nation’s ugly history, and the power in reclaiming such history through art.” - Chicago Review of Books
“Chasing Me to My Grave offers a powerful, unfiltered look at life growing up in Jim Crow Georgia . . . A stunning portrait of hope in the face of evil, barbarity, and racism.” - Publishers Weekly, starred review, "Best Books of the Year"
“Chasing Me to My Grave is a testament to the ways one man used his art to educate, delight and depict the trauma that arises out of memory.” - BookPage, starred review, "Best Books of the Year"
“Frank and compelling . . . An ultimately uplifting journey from the ugliness of virulent racism to the beauty of art.” - Kirkus, starred review
“Visually and narratively stunning . . . Rembert’s artistic talent was a gift; his use of that talent to create memorable images—of an era before modern cameras were ubiquitous—is a gift to history.” - Library Journal
“While the horrors of the Jim Crow South have been well documented, Winfred Rembert’s memoir in words and paintings lends immediacy and specificity to their lasting trauma . . . A powerful testament to America’s most shameful history, but even more so to Rembert’s talent and vision as an artist, and to his unique and indomitable spirit.” - Sara Hinckley, Senior Vice President of Books, Hudson
“Rembert’s art expresses the legacy of slavery, the trauma of lynching, and the anguish of racial hierarchy and white supremacy while illuminating a resolve to fight oppression and injustice. He has the ability to reveal truths about the human struggle that are transcendent, to evoke an understanding of human dignity that is broad and universal.” - Bryan Stevenson, New York Times bestselling author of JUST MERCY and founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative
“The power of Rembert’s Chasing Me to My Grave is in the unvarnished truth, in the writing, the storytelling, the artwork, his life. Unvarnished literary and visual power.” - Carol Anderson, New York Times bestselling author of WHITE RAGE and ONE PERSON, NO VOTE
“Winfred Rembert paints a world too little depicted and a reality we can’t afford to forget. While testifying to this nation’s long history of racial injustice, Chasing Me to My Grave is also a must-read story of Black struggle, solidarity, and love.” - Albert Woodfox, author of SOLITARY
“At turns harrowing and haunting, Chasing Me to My Grave is a testament to the rich cultural resources and the poetry of Black Southern life. Rembert's paintings, brilliantly composed, kinetic, and enchanting, are interspersed through his reflections about life in the cotton and carceral South. The language is elegant and vernacular, his observations are insightful and poignant. And through it all, joy, no matter how elusive, never disappears.” - Imani Perry, Hughes-Rogers Professor of African American Studies at Princeton University and author of LOOKING FOR LORRAINE
“Chasing Me to My Grave is both a literary and artistic triumph. Winfred Rembert’s memoir of the carceral state in the Jim Crow South is a profoundly moving, devastatingly painful, and wonderfully transformative experience. Rembert’s earthy prose, evocative images, and grace in the face of racial oppression is an inspiring true story that will forever change the way we look at the system of mass incarceration and unequal justice and those who resisted with love, beauty, and artistic brilliance. This book is a must read for all who are interested in finding out the roots of our current racial crisis as well as the possibilities for truth, justice, and healing.” - Peniel E. Joseph, author of THE SWORD AND THE SHIELD: THE REVOLUTIONARY LIVES OF MALCOLM X AND MARTIN LUTHER KING JR.
“Chasing Me to My Grave is a brilliant reminder of where we've come from as a country. We've come to accept William Faulkner's adage, ‘The past is never dead. It’s not even past.’ But Rembert's account reminds us that it is in the remembering of the past that we keep it from becoming prologue. From the Jim Crow South to the chain gang to a life as an artist, Rembert reminds us of the terror and the possibility of America. That he became an artist while in prison says something about the gifts we bury, that he lived to tell this harrowing tale says something about the strength of this man.” - Reginald Dwayne Betts, author of BASTARDS OF THE REAGAN ERA and FELON
In this captivating posthumous memoir coauthored by Kelly (The Limit of Blame), the well-known American painter Rembert (1945–2021) describes growing up as a Black man in the segregated South, elaborates on the experiences that informed his paintings, and recounts his journey to becoming an artist. He was born in Cuthbert, GA, to a young single mother and raised by his aunt, a kind woman he called "Mama." She carried him in a sack on her back as she worked the cotton fields when he was a baby, and he began working in the fields as soon as he was able. Images of Rembert's Georgia experiences—including lynchings (both seen and experienced), baptism, town life, home life, civil rights protests, and incarceration—populate his dynamic paintings on leather. Creating art meant revisiting haunting and traumatic events, which took an emotional toll that Rembert bravely describes. This volume makes the case that Rembert's artistic talent was a gift; his use of that talent to create memorable images—of an era before modern cameras were ubiquitous—is a gift to history. VERDICT This dynamic book, complete with numerous illustrations, is visually and narratively stunning. Readers interested in the artistic process or mid-20th-century U.S. history, especially the Black experience in the Jim Crow South, will appreciate it.—Laurie Unger Skinner, Highland Park P.L., IL
The late Black artist tells his life story via his words and powerful works of visual art.
Rembert (1945-2021) was raised by a great aunt in rural Georgia, and he spent his childhood working with her in the cotton fields. In the 1960s, he participated in the civil rights movement, and, after one violent crackdown at a protest, stole a car to flee two White men chasing him with shotguns. Soon arrested and stuck in jail for nearly two years awaiting trial, he escaped, only to be caught that night by a violent White mob. Hung by his feet in a tree, "bleeding like a hog,” he survived being "almost lynched.” With new charges from having escaped and stolen the sheriff’s gun, he was given a 27-year term in state prison. Rembert survived the grueling hard labor and mental cruelty of a chain gang, and he was released after serving seven years. In prison, he learned how to tool and dye leather, and at 51 was compelled "to do pictures of what was done to me.” His visceral works illustrate his days picking cotton, dancing in juke joints, enduring the brutality of the chain gang, and reckoning with the "everyday lie" of White supremacy. Rembert’s wife, Patsy, saw his art's power and worth clearly: "Nobody tells their life story on leather." In 2000, curator Jock Reynolds gave Rembert a show at the Yale University Art Gallery, and national exhibitions followed as well as two documentaries on his life and work. "My pictures are about how Black people were treated and how they lived," writes the author, and the book is abundantly illustrated with four-color representations of his art. The oral history, as told to co-author Kelly, is thoughtful and honest, and Patsy's chapter, told in her own words, is also frank and compelling. Readers should note that the N-word appears more than 70 times in the text, which is deliberate: “I want the reader to understand the effect it carries when you use that word and how degrading it is.” Bryan Stevenson provides the foreword.
An ultimately uplifting journey from the ugliness of virulent racism to the beauty of art.