This is the rest of the story about my April visit with my elementary school teacher Catherine Blackwell. You can read the first part of the story here.
When I first came into the house, I was intrigued when I glanced into the living room from the hallway. The room was crammed with sculptures, paintings and photographs. Now that we had been talking for a while, I asked if Mrs. Blackwell could show me her art collection. She padded down the stairs and guided me into the living room.
I knew her African art collection was famous, but that didn’t prepare me for the breadth of her collection occupying every available space. There were stunning masks, sculptures and weavings made of fabric, wood, animal hair, bone.
My little point and shoot camera doesn’t show the beauty of these museum-quality pieces.
I eyed the long shelf of carved figures.
And found myself drawn to this one.
Recognizing the rarity and age of this figure with its ragged fabric and fragile animal hair, I asked where it was from but didn’t touch it. Mrs. Blackwell nonchalantly told me to just pick it up and look at it, so I did. The wood was weighty in my hand.
I contemplated the long-ago sculptor who created it. Who was the person who made this? What animal had that long soft hair? And how did it come into Mrs. Blackwell’s life? She had me turn over the foot, and I saw it was labeled, archived as part of a significant collection. “It’s from Senegal,” she said.
I could have spent several hours investigating the artwork and photographs in that room. I pointed to one black and white image of a couple laughing together. She told me it was a wedding photo of Miriam Makeba and South African musician and activist Hugh Masekela.
After visiting for two and a half hours, I had to leave to meet my friends who were expecting me. But I wanted to know about every one of the 60 journeys Mrs. Blackwell had made to Africa. I wanted to hear her lifetime of stories. It had been 42 years, and this visit now seemed way too short.
I reluctantly told her I had to go, giving my email address to her caregiver Gwen and explaining that I would blog about my visit and send her the link. Mrs. Blackwell said: “Oh, please come back. And stay the night next time.” She walked into the adjacent room, and pulled a tall white book off the shelf.
“This is for you,” she said, reaching for a pen.
She handed me A Heritage of Teaching: The African Art Collection of Catherine C. Blackwell, a guide to a touring exhibit from 2003. I opened it. On the first page, there was a photo of her. She was dressed in Ghanaian Kente cloth and story hat, holding a Yoruba Ibeji figure. Beside the image, she had written in crooked script, “With Love, Love, Love, Catherine C. Blackwell.”
We hugged before I said goodbye. I knew I would start to cry if I didn’t leave quickly. I started my car and looked back toward the house. She stood in the doorway waving until we could no longer see each other.
When I think about this visit, I see again the painting of Mrs. Blackwell hanging above her fireplace, depicting her in a classroom—the storyteller and musician sharing with eager children.
She thanked me for visiting her. I thank her for a lifetime of inspiration.
UPDATE: See the comments below from 2014 for more recent information. On February 4, the Detroit Free Press published a touching obituary with a photo that captures Catherine Blackwell’s spirit.
Absolutely beautiful, Beverly! I love the way you wove the photographs and text together into such a compelling story. And that painting of Mrs. Blackwell is so full of joy and so captures the spirit you describe so well. I’m glad you had this time together and were able to thank her for all she gave you; that’s a rare and precious experience. And I KNOW it meant the world to her that you visited her all these years later! Thanks for sharing your moving story. 0x0x0x0x0x0x0x, E.
What an extraordinary woman, and how beautifully and lovingly you have written about her! Cristina
This is a beautiful story, Beverly. She sounds like an amazing woman! You are lucky to have been inspired by her and to meet her again and learn more about her. How very special this is. Thank you for sharing this.
What a beautiful story. Your writing is a joy to read.
Hello, First let me thank you for so thoughtfully and wonderfully capturing the spirit of Catherine C. Blackwell (Big Ma as we call her). We wanted to let you know that last night (February 1, 2014) Big Ma made her transition from labor to reward at the age of 94. Until the end she continued to inspire us and fill our lives with joy and laughter. We are all better for having had her in our lives. God bless you.
Ifetayo, I apologize for the delay in posting your comment–I was traveling for a few days. Thank you for your kind words.
I also received a call from Mrs. Blackwell’s caregiver Gwen who told me that one of the photos I took when we met in 2012 was shared as part of her memorial. While I could not attend the memorial in person, I am committed to honoring her legacy by living the kind of life that she inspired. I found out about the Catherine C. Blackwell Scholarship Fund from the Detroit Free Press obituary that a friend shared with me, and I have sent a donation.
Hi, I found your blog after googling my former teachers at Bagley Elementary and Hampton Jr. High, in the late 60’s. I was also enchanted by Mrs. Blackwell and Mr. Stafford. I saved a Sunday supplement to the Press, that featured Mrs. Blackwell on the cover, outfitted in her regalia. She was one of my most favorite teachers of all time. Never made the same type of connection in high school or college. My family lived on Greenlawn a block north of Bagley. We were one of the last hold outs after the white flight to the suburbs. I live in west Michigan now. Would love to hear more of your memories! All the best, Cynthia Arnold.
Recently, I discovered your blog after searching for Catherine C. Blackwell’s obituary. I’m in the process of drafting a brief bio for an upcoming project. My life and education were deeply enriched by Mrs. Blackwell, too! Actually, I attended the school named in her honor. As a student, the ideas/beliefs/cultural values that my family instilled in me were broadened under her tutelage. Also, I gained a significant portion of my close friendships spanning more than 20 years :).
Mrs. Blackwell left an amazing legacy. In fact, a group of alumni have created a steering committee to organize a fundraiser for youth currently enrolled at Catherine C. Blackwell Institute. The current principal is Mrs. Patricia Hines and she is involved with this project. The fundraiser will be in the form of a skating party at Great Skate, in Troy, Michigan. The date is Sunday, April 12th, 2015. Please let me know if you are interested in this endeavor. Best wishes!
Thank you for this very thoughtful note. It’s heartening to hear that Mrs. Blackwell’s legacy is continuing. I unfortunately live out of state, but I have made a donation in her honor to the Catherine Blackwell Institute. I wish you the best for your fundraiser. If you would like to dialogue further, you can reach me at the email address listed in the About Me section at the top of my website on the home page.