The Inclusive Humanity of Alice Neel's Paintings
I grew up in Brooklyn. For a while, on weekends, my father would take me and my little brother into "the city." My father loved to walk, and he loved foreign films and foreign food. This meant that we saw different areas of Manhattan all the time. We ate sauerkraut in Germantown on the Upper East Side, and bought brisket and bialys on the Lower East Side. Looking back now, I can see that my father showed us as much of the world as he could without going out into the actual world, or beyond Brooklyn and Manhattan. I think anything outside the parameters of what he knew–he sought the unfamiliar in the familiar–felt dangerous to him and so, presumably, to his male children, whom he could not love; he had an aversion to maleness. Daddy was the only son of West Indian immigrants, and it occurs to me now that all those places we visited with him, down in Chinatown and beyond, were some version of his immigrant experience–a world of strivers gathered around their native food, trading stories about the new world. I suppose my brother and I were, to some extent, representative of the new world. In any case, visiting those various neighborhoods in Manhattan prepared us for many things, including the feeling that different people were not unfamiliar to us; when you're a child, the world is oneself. Still, there were signs that this feeling of oneness would not remain forever. My mother raised me, my brother, and one of my older sisters on welfare. This was during the time when social workers could come to your house to see if you had anything you shouldn't have, like a husband, or a television. Something in my heart, though, concentrated on this feeling of oneness I wanted to have with someone, and with the world. Determination was, for a time, my very soul.