Lorraine O’Grady, “The Strange Taxi: From Africa to Jamaica to Boston in 200 Years,” (1991/2019) (all images courtesy the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston and the author)
The essay “NOTES on Living a Translated Life” by Lorraine O’Grady was first published in Boston’s Apollo, Thomas McKeller and John Singer Sargent, which accompanied the exhibition of the same name at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston. The exhibition is curated by Nathaniel Silver.
Excerpt from Notes on a Translated Life
by Lorraine O Grady
Published in Hypoallergic
October 11, 2020
I’ve been invited to reflect on Thomas McKeller, my father, Edwin O’Grady, and on Boston as the matrix of their lives, and asked to suggest how my photomontage The Strange Taxi might relate to them. Since our first discussions in January 2018 of the McKeller-Sargent exhibit, the Gardner Museum curator Nathaniel Silver and his team have uncovered much new documentary evidence of who McKeller might have been, how he might have lived. Our perceptions have become more refined and changed. I also have never thought about Edwin this much before. It’s been an evolutionary roller-coaster for me. The limits of the archive are severe. And when I try to picture Thomas and Edwin, two black immigrants to the city encountering it in the 1910s and ’20s — while simultaneously thinking about my own life growing up in Boston in the 1930s and ’40s (I was born in September 1934 and graduated from Girls’ Latin in 1951) — the myopia of childhood memory intersects with all the questions I didn’t ask my parents. Who, and why, do people leave? Who, and what, do they expect to find waiting for them?
A Wilmington, NC, newspaper notice in early 1912, less than a year after his father died, announcing a court-ordered “public auction for cash” of his brother’s (and his?) land to be held in just two weeks, must have been a red flag to Thomas. Surely he was aware of the uni- directional black-white land transfers now in full sway across the “Redeemed” South since Reconstruction had been successfully rolled back. He had so many reasons to want to leave.
In the first documents I open for him, which we have since found are inaccurate, McKeller’s World War I draft card gives 1892 as his birth year, while the discharge papers indicate a birth date of 1891. This strange discrepancy makes me try to account for it. In 1912, the age of majority was still twenty-one for males. It would not be reduced to eighteen until the 1970s. Had McKeller lied about his age just as my father, Edwin, had to join the army when he left Jamaica the first time? If Thomas were born in 1892, he would have to wait a year and a half after the auction to leave North Carolina. If he added one year, claimed he was born in 1891, he could be gone in six months.
Lorraine O’Grady’s yearbook photo, Girls’ Latin School, Boston, 1951
But what strikes me most on Thomas’s World War I draft card is the Registrar’s physical description: “Tall, medium, or short (specify one)?” Short. “Slender, medium, or stout (which)?” Medium.
It is disorienting. From the John Singer Sargent frontal nude painting of McKeller in Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, I’d imagined Thomas as tall and slender. The Registrar’s answers to Question One on the draft card force me to return to Sargent’s earlier drawings of him. Looking more closely, I can see that even a hundred years ago a body like Thomas’s was not accidental. It must have taken relentless work to make a delicate frame that strong. I recall the Charles Atlas “95 lb. weakling” ads filling the magazine, newspaper, and comic-book back-pages when I was growing up and want to laugh and cry at the same time. It’s not hard to see why Sargent drew inspiration from Thomas’s body for both his male and female forms.
No one knows the reasons why Thomas left the South; we still do not have definitive information. But the psychic pressures must have been enormous. Whether the inner battles were life preserving — the need to escape social and cultural suffocation, even fear for his physical life and of other depredation — or romantic (had he met someone?), turmoil made him brave. It took courage to leave when Thomas did. He left three to four years before the beginning of the Great Migration, before folk wisdom had accumulated on where you should go and what you should do when you got there. It took even greater courage when one considers that men like McKeller wouldn’t leave the South in large numbers until more than a quarter century later.
Historians now divide the Migration into two phases: The First Great Migration (1916–1940), in which 1.6 million African Americans moved from the South to Northern cities, especially in the industrial Midwest. In the Second Great Migration (1940–1970), another five million people, often more urban and skilled, as was Thomas himself, dispersed more broadly, from the Northeast to the West Coast. The two phases together are considered one of the largest internal migrations in world history, and the largest not prompted either by famine or threat of genocide. At the end of it, a primarily rural people had transformed itself into a people that was overwhelmingly urban.
But Thomas made the move alone. And what we actually know about his leaving is as sad as those words sound. In an “archive failure” as extreme as the one surrounding Thomas, the answer to almost every question seems to be: “We just don’t know.” Did he buy a one-way ticket to Boston? Was someone waiting for him there? Or did he stop first in Philly or New York and then leave because they didn’t suit him? Sadly, it doesn’t take long for so many we-don’t-knows to become one big No. The life soon appears like a blackboard that has been erased too often. What is now written there can be seen only faintly. But I have to hold on to what I feel I do know. Thomas left a home where he was deeply loved. His brother even named his first son after him. And Boston, like Granada, is where the train dies. The next stop would be the ocean.
According to the birthdate given on his World War II draft card, 1890, confirmed by later information, Thomas was eight years older than my father, Edwin, born in 1898. They were both in their early twenties when they landed in Boston. Thomas is first recorded in the city in 1913. Edwin came in 1919, weeks after being mustered out of the British West Indies Regiment when its Jamaican companies returned from Europe to Kingston.
The two had grown up in overwhelmingly black worlds — Edwin in a Jamaica roughly 95% black, Thomas in segregated North Carolina — and in tropical and subtropical climates. What must they have made of a place where the population was 98% white and snow fell from mid-November to mid-March? They would stay there the rest of their lives. But they had come to different cities, I think.
Father Edwin O’Grady, 1923, this photo for Edwin’s Naturalization “First Papers” application is signed with his original British-styled name at birth in Jamaica: Evelyn James O’Grady. After legally changing his name, his final Naturalization papers would be signed with the new name: Edwin James O’Grady.
Most emigrants seem to flee from as much as they flee to. In Edwin’s case, from an insupportable home life to a place where he might reinvent himself, where, somehow, he might make things turn out better than they would have been. But Thomas’s home, despite the Redeemers’ violent threats, seems to have been filled with love. Perhaps it was a love he could not accommodate? I sense him fleeing, not so much to reinvent himself, but to become more who he was. Edwin would be joining others who had done earlier what he was doing now. His older sister had been living in Boston since before the war, and he’d arranged to meet up with mates from his old school. Edwin knew where he would stay, and his mother would telegraph money until he found a job.
The Gardner’s research shows that Thomas McKeller had no family in Boston when he arrived, and that none would join him later. But it is silent on any social circle that may have awaited him or one he might have entered after settling there. Clearly Thomas got connected quickly. Not long after his arrival in 1913, we find him employed as a bellman at the Hotel Vendome, perhaps Boston’s most tastefully appointed and well-run hotel (the manager lived on the premises). This was hardly the easiest job to get. Turnover at the Vendome was low (my father had a friend from Jamaica who’d worked there for decades), and most of the employees were older. Then not many years later, in 1917, we see that Thomas has secured an added morning job, which nearly doubles his income, as John Singer Sargent’s model. He is twenty-five, in an alien city, but in the context of that time and place, he seems a young man who knows how to take care of himself.
Read the entire essay on Hyperallergic