Warning: Spoiler alerts ahead; check out our podcast on the lessons from “Origin” over at URL Media
If you’ve seen Ava DuVernay’s film, “Origin,” then you know the scene.
In it, we’re transported back to 1951, as a Black child named Al Bright is forbidden from joining his Little League teammates celebrating a championship with a pool party. From behind a chain-link fence and atop a picnic blanket, he watches until authorities relent and allow him in under one condition: No white people can be in the pool and Al cannot touch the water. While Al lies completely still on a raft, a lifeguard pulls him around the perimeter of the pool. The white families are gathered around, watching and silent.
Afterward, Al returns to the blanket and the actor playing Isabel Wilkerson, author of “Caste,” the book upon which the film is based, lies next to him. Tears stream down their cheeks. She says to the boy: “You’re gonna be okay. All is well.”
Hearing this, you can’t help but wonder if that’s really true. By Wilkerson’s own account, a part of Al Bright died that day. But indeed, he went on to thrive and defy the cruel rules that kept him from celebrating the victory.
Al Bright became the first full-time Black faculty member at his alma mater, Youngstown State University. He also was a successful artist and one of his paintings is up right now at the Butler Institute of American Art as part of the exhibit, “Greatness Revealed: The Art of African Americans from the Butler Collection.” Others in the show include Romare Bearden, Sam Gilliam and Horace Pippin. Wilkerson never got to interview Bright; he died at the age of 82 in 2019.
I asked the Butler Institute’s executive director, Louis Zona, a longtime friend and former student of Bright’s, more about this remarkable turnaround, and what impact such an ugly incident might have had on Bright’s creation of so much beauty. Edited excerpts:
S. Mitra Kalita: Have you been getting many calls since the book and movie came out?
Louis Zona: Surprisingly, no.
SMK: I have to say I Googled “Al Bright” right away because that scene impacted me profoundly. Did he ever talk about what happened at the pool that day with you?
LZ: I wasn’t familiar with his background, but I was a student in his first university class. That would have been 1966, probably about 15 years after this incident occurred.
In his university teaching, he never shared that story. But I remember him giving a talk one day to an African American community and he did. He said “let me tell you about an incident.” That shocked the daylights out of me and shocked the daylights out of everybody.
As they’re pulling him around the pool, he said that he looked into the face of each of his former teammates. He said, ‘I didn’t scowl at them. I didn’t say anything to them. I just looked into their eyes. And that was enough said. They knew they had done something wrong.’
They were Little Leaguers. He told me that he never blamed them, but the adults, sure. I think that hurt him the most.
I told him I’m glad you went ahead and told the story. I told it often when I was asked in groups. I would share what he went through to be what he became.
SMK: Why did Professor Bright become an artist?
LZ: He attended an inner-city high school and was fortunate enough to have a teacher by the name of Jon Naberezny, the son of Ukrainian immigrants.
Jon fell in love with his student. The student fell in love with his teacher. They just admired each other greatly. Al was heading in not a very good direction. Jon Naberezny redirected him and they became best of friends. The story of Al Bright can’t be told without mentioning the influence that Jon Naberezny had on him. He was chairman of the art department at Youngstown State but he had begun his career teaching in that high school.
SMK: Did Al Bright talk about the racism in his life? Did it surface in his art?
LZ: He was an abstract painter. Most of the works that have become known are abstractions, which means that there is no narrative associated with them.
He was enormously proud of his race. For example, we brought to Youngstown a famous African American artist named Sam Gilliam. I could tell you that virtually everybody who collected art in the Youngstown and Warren areas of Ohio were proud to have an Al Bright in their home.
He was one of the few artists who would be willing to paint in front of an audience, which is what he became known for in this area.
He was invited by the University of Akron to do one of his public paintings. The auditorium was jam packed with people, several hundred in attendance watching Al Bright make a painting.
I was so glad for him because that day he was truly a celebrity. People got to realize what a fine artist we have in our community. Fifty percent of the people living here are African Americans. They were extremely proud of his abilities and the recognition that he received.
SMK: Well, he’s told in the movie that he’s gonna be ok. You’re telling me he was. Thank you for that.
LZ: He was just a wonderful human being and a terrific artist and teacher. Students still talk about Professor Bright and what an influence he was on them. One reason was that he encouraged people. He was not a negative person. Even if he saw something negative in your work, he would figure out a way to make it into a positive.