A Word In Edgewise: One Of Many “What Ifs?”

“Facebook?” some friends may say. “You spend time on Facebook?” Yes, well, it’s a lot like anything else. You can search and sift and find most anything, trash or treasure depending on your definition of either one. I like science information, I like satire, sometimes I just like to veg out and scroll. I notice more special interest groups are posting bios, photos of various “excluded” folks; those overshadowed, discounted lives many live(d) and the actual, unacknowledged things they’ve accomplished.

Women working in the early computer field were brought to visibility through the film Hidden Figures (from Margot Lee Shetterly’s 2016 Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race.) One, Katherine Johnson, was awarded the American Medal of Freedom in 2015. In 1962, John Glenn, before the first Earth orbit aboard Friendship 7, insisted that Johnson manually check the accuracy of the electronic computer’s numbers.

Shutting out, cutting off is everywhere, in every field. On April 2, 1931, 17-year-old Jackie Mitchell, only the second woman to sign an Organized Baseball contract, struck out mighty Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, one-two. Shortly afterward, Baseball Commissioner Kenesaw Landis stripped Mitchell of her contract, claiming life in baseball was simply “too strenuous” for a girl. Debate that with today’s athletes, Simone Biles or Serena Williams.

One could list so many individuals shuttered, confined, repressed for their sex, gender, race, religion, intelligence, or a myriad other threats to the powers that be. Explain to those who will not hear how if exercise is forbidden a child–boy or girl–will lack strength; that if books are forbidden, an unlettered child or adult can safely be deemed unintelligent, stupid.

A Facebook announcement of a current Met exhibit clarifies what I’m struggling to say. A photograph of a seventeenth century Velásquez painting of a Black man. Clothed in dark fabric, set off by a wide, white lace shawl collar, he stands erect, in three-quarter profile, his gaze–direct but guarded–meets your eye.

Unlike most of the excluded, his name is known: Juan de Pareja. Born around 1608 in Vallejo, Spain, he was Velásquez’s property, his enslaved servant and assistant. Parejo ground pigments, stretched canvases, perhaps painted duplicates–in any event, also taught himself to paint.

For the exhibit, in fact, is not about Velásquez’s genius and art, but about Parejo’s. At the Met through July 16, the exposition of Pareja’s own canvases and sculptures offers a rebuttal to those with blanket predictions concerning “all women,” “all Blacks,” “all fill- in-the-threat.”

Even this exhibition owes much–as the Met itself posts–to Harlem Renaissance collector and scholar Arturo Schomburg, who from 1910 was vital to the recovery of Pareja’s work and to whom is owed this connection between seventeenth-century Spain and the current exhibit, drawing together the threads of numerous histories written about Pareja.

What, the viewer is drawn to wonder, did the genius Velásquez think about being the owner of such a man? We’ll never know for sure, but after holding Pareja in servitude, several months after completing this portrait in early 1650, in Rome, Velásquez signed a contract of manumission for Pareja, to come into effect in four years. It did, and Pareja picked up his brushes.

Those papers are included in the exhibition along with Pareja’s canvases. And that revelatory Velásquez portrait.

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