I guess I’ve been an art historian, informally I’d say I’ve always “geeked out over art,” since my teens in San Francisco. I didn’t know the official title of what it was I loved because I didn’t know that “art historian,” as an occupation, was available to anyone, irrespective of gender or ethnicity. Recalling my initial awareness, then love of painting, sculpture, assemblage—The Liberation of Aunt Jemima from around 1972 comes to mind—I realize I’d started growing into my African American personhood at that time. All types of art constituted a method for me to clarify private thoughts and feelings associated with living this physical, mental, and social reality.
One of the first paintings that became important for me as a youngster is Henry Ossawa Tanner’s The Thankful Poor of 1894. As was the opinion in some quarters, I didn’t view the work as a betrayal, a parody of Blacks who live out quotidian gratitude. I don’t believe this artwork is of or for White folk. To me, it’s a striking image, a mise en scène, of one family’s habitual practice of Divine praise and thanksgiving. H.O. Tanner received a hero’s welcome in 1992, when the old H.M. de Young Memorial Museum in Golden Gate Park, San Francisco, hosted a wonderfully introspective exhibition of this African American painter’s works.
I related to The Thankful Poor as a girl who, unbeknownst to myself, harbored ambition, for I knew not what. What I did know in my teen years was that I’d been steeped in my country’s native White supremacist racism from my memory’s beginnings. I had no words for Tanner’s chef d’œuvre. My response, gut-level, was to the compelling and stunning way the artist’s masterpiece opened up a Black family’s coming-to-grips with their severely straitened situation in late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century America.
Tanner and his White American wife sought safety from jealousy and racial hatred: these were the exigencies of Tanner’s, the older Poor man’s, and the young boy’s reality. France eventually became the Tanners’ home. The artist gained international renown. I knew I was greedy for knowledge and understanding of Black American culture. I also understood, as a youth growing into adulthood with my own attendant dreams of professional and private expression, my desire was for more than to be identified as “the Black this” or “the only Black that.” H.O. Tanner and all African Americans face this existential conundrum.
I was painfully shy; these days I’m a proud nerd. I didn’t really know until well into my adult life that I was, I am, intellectually-forward. I was copiously talented in my high school years: an art lover, avid reader, classical musician, a Latinist, gifted writer, geometrician, and logophile. All the aforementioned constituted a rich source of embarrassment for me. I embraced all of what I considered aberrant, weird. I condemned myself throughout.
Perhaps I was a traitor to my race for my deep interest in Julius Caesar, as well as first-century B.C. Latin poets Virgil and Catullus? I’d taken Advanced Placement (AP) English and Latin at my college-preparatory high school in San Francisco. Was I “too white”? My hair was long, untouched by a straightening comb since seventh grade; I was knowledgeable in Black American history. I loved 1970s rhythm-and-blues music. Back in the day it was called “Soul” music. The latter character flaws rendered me too “Black” to be white. Confusion, fear, and shame were my default emotions throughout childhood. “Quiet as it’s kept,” as the older folks would say, they populated my emotional world until recently.
I graduated from Lowell High School with a diverse knowledge of art history. Favorites ranged from J.C. Leyendecker’s Art Noveau “Arrow Collar Man,” to sculptor Stephen de Staebler’s Market Street Angel in San Francisco’s Financial District, to Baroque-era Italian master Mattia Preti’s Saint John the Baptist Preaching at Lincoln Park’s Legion of Honor, to cultural mainstay Grant Wood’s painting of Dinner for Threshers. The latter artwork, from the artist whose oeuvre includes the emblematic American Gothic, resides in the de Young Museum’s permanent collection.
But in 1994 when I enrolled at Mills College, approximately thirty miles away in Oakland, it was with an eye toward Quattrocento Italian nude painting. “Quattrocento” means “four hundred” in Italian: the word describes Italian art of the 1400s or the fifteenth century. I also looked forward to the proffered aid of the Mills College Scholarship. That opened the floodgates for me. My prayer was, if God, in God’s wisdom, made funds available for me to return to undergraduate studies at age thirty-seven, what other marvels were there to be had?
Between Lowell High School and Mills College, my first iteration as an undergraduate student was at UC Berkeley. I left Cal early and quickly moved to Lake Tahoe, where I resided on the California side. An inexplicable and unplanned opportunity to “deal,” or oversee, Craps and Blackjack gambling games followed. I began work as a “dealer” at a Stateline, Nevada entity that was part of a major hotel and casino chain. I remained there, enmired in the kind of indecision that would plague me throughout my life, for over a decade. I stayed, literally didn’t move, because I felt I had no choice.
For twelve years I absorbed blatant, overt, and insouciantly cruel racism and sexism. These regular depredations made a lasting impact on my life. My co-workers were the source of constant insults, racial jokes, and put-downs. One relatively benign example was delivered as a barb from one of my bosses, a Pit Administrator, whose authority outranked that of the Pit Bosses as well as my own. His humor was an expression of a disdain for progressive politics that I sensed intuitively.
What, he asked, should be the national response to President Reagan signing into law Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day on every third Monday of January? “Kill six more and take the whole week off!” There were allusions from a dealer on the Graveyard shift to the country of my paternal ancestors, Jamaica. He suggested I should return there willingly. A guffaw or an arch smile and wink accompanied every comment, as if to communicate the message, It’s only a joke—where’s your sense of humor? Multiply each indignity by twelve, over the course of days, weeks, months. I vividly remember consuming, or rather being force-fed, this steady staple diet.
All of it took place throughout my formative period as a young Black woman—my early twenties into my early thirties. The time I spent in this environment became pitch-like. It encased me like hardened tar. I’ve always been a Pollyanna, a Goody Two-Shoes type of person. But I wasn’t childish, I was childlike. I didn’t quite know what to do with myself. Like England’s Prime Minister of the time, “Iron Maiden” Margaret Thatcher, I turned and was adjudged tough. Today I believe I was naïve at best, stupid at worst.
In late 2019, I read Dr. Carter Godwin Woodson’s 1933 classic, The Mis-education of the Negro; from this vantage point, I look back and see the certain Mis-education of April Renee Lynch. After I’d risen to the top of the class, an uneasy peace ensued between my captors, who were my educators, and me. The ambit of my sojourn at Cal Berkeley and Stateline, Nevada was the 1970s through the late 1980s.
For me, the casino environment was toxic; that said, it wasn’t a thing upon which I focused. I thank God for saving me from my foolish, dangerous innocence. I knew unknowingly that my exuberant youth, my fresh-faced Black girlishness, excited and repelled the grim, pinch-faced White men who surrounded me. They were my bosses, the Pit Bosses; they were my customers, old-time casino hands, from nearby Reno; Carson City; and smaller towns such as Genoa, Nevada; and Minden, Nevada. My work took place in the gaming department known as the “Pit.” This area contained the popular gambling games of the time: Craps, Blackjack, Roulette, Baccarat, Pai Gow, and Sic Bo.
I could count on fingers and toes the number of times I’d actually used my own money to play a table game or slot machine over twelve years of employment dealing Blackjack and Craps. The fast-paced excitement of the most high-profile table game, Craps, fascinated me. Over the years I rose to the level of a regular “crew” member, who dealt on high-limit Craps games.
One of four people—during the decade of the ‘80s, three were almost always White males—I controlled the action on the gaming table. The lowest bet on these games ranged from twenty-five to one hundred dollars. I emphasize, more to bring the point home to myself than the reader, mine was a rare presence. There were practically no other Blacks or women—and no one was as young as I was—in a position similar to mine. In what parallel, alternate universe did I live, without any understanding?
Dealing craps was much more fun for me than being a customer could ever be. Childlike, ignorant despite the experience of Craps dealer training “school,” I was unaware of how heavily the probability of winning almost every bet—the odds of which we hear tell—is weighted in favor of the casino, the “house.”
Every time I walked up to “push out” another dealer from his place on a Craps game, the bank was losing money. Control had been lost, in favor of a shooter temporarily beating the house by rolling the winning dice for hand after hand. In effect, I functioned as a hired gun plucked from the mottled history of the nineteenth-century American West. My crew’s quickness and efficiency “moved the dice,” speeding up the pace of play. That meant fewer of the casino’s dollars could be handed over to customers, who were then forced to make a more limited number of bets.
Counterintuitively it seemed, experience of the odds taught that within the space of a few orderly, more businesslike minutes, would come the stickman’s cry, “Seven out, line away; last Comes and previous Don’ts are the winners.” In a word, all players who’d risked their money on the promise of victory over the house had lost that investment. As stipulated, one group of winners included the spoilsports who’d bet against the lucky shooter. But generally, the mood was gloomier than before we’d arrived. My crew and I had successfully turned the odds back in favor of the House That Money Built.
I might as well have been another Willie Sutton, the legendary criminal and bank robber of the 1930s. My ambition wasn’t to be “where the money [was],” but rather, “I enjoyed it [the action]. I loved it.” Mr. Sutton, who never uttered the first statement, said he “loved” robbing banks; he felt most alive while doing so. I held casino gaming in similar, though in my case waif-like, awe. I thank my Maker; She knows that’s no longer the case.
When I returned to school at Mills College, it was after this period in my life that drove me to a mental breakdown. I moved from Stateline, Nevada to live with my maternal grandmother in California’s Central Valley, the San Joaquin County city of Stockton. After a few years of rest—I returned to the Bay Area and, thus, to Mills—and a regime of psychotropic medication, I felt I could resume studies toward my Bachelor’s degree. With some changes, I’m still on that schedule of medications.
The study of art, particularly Italian art of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, removed me from prior nightmares of racial terrorism and acute mental disability. It brought back times that were more essential, straightforward, and pleasant. While soothing me, the process of taking in the facts and knowledge of this branch of the humanities increased exponentially my ability to retain thoughts and ideas in other subjects. My world view expanded; I learned how to study, how to learn. I underwent a natural development and my intellect progressed to maturity. My expertise in a host of other fields and disciplines grew. It hasn’t stopped yet.
During my first semester, I experienced Giorgione’s painting of Sleeping Venus in my class on Female Nudes of the Italian Renaissance; I remember my first thought exactly: “Where have you been all my life?” In other courses, I gobbled up the Italian Renaissance of Masaccio’s painting, sculptor Donatello’s Prophet Habakkuk, and painter Ghirlandaio with just as much gusto. It seemed that they—and so many female and male artists—brought intensity and enthusiasm to the public fore as easily as they drank water. Or wine. Maybe it was my thirsty reception of their artwork that made it so for me.
I graduated with my BA in Art History and a 3.61 GPA. I’d survived serious mental challenges and returned to school successfully in my late 30s. I’d participated in student government, worked out most afternoons, and stayed on campus till after 10:00 p.m. regularly to finish assignments. But on that day I was verklempt because I missed the 3.75 GPA requirement for an invitation to join Phi Beta Kappa, the national honor society.
I’d been fêted with the Mary Laughlin Beardmore Prize for Excellence in Art History in a ceremony held before the Class of 1996 commencement. The significance of the award was lost on me. In separate essays in this volume, I write of the path to my Master’s degree, my PhD, my studies at Stanford University, UC Berkeley, the Graduate Theological Union at Berkeley, UC Irvine, and Middlebury College in Middlebury, Vermont.
While in Italy I conducted research as a credentialed scholar at the Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana—the Vatican Library. I came to know that the past made me the woman I’d become; the future was yet to be had. While at Mills College in Oakland, California, I had just begun to live in the present.
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