“Do you see that painting? Look at it move. That’s energy. And I’m the one who put it there. I transform energy with these old limbs of mine.” —alma thomas, on her painting “Red Azaleas”
Free All Necks
How the groundbreaking work of artist and teacher Alma Thomas inspired a generation of Black studentsAlexis Pauline Gumbs
alma woodsey thomas, the first graduate of Howard University in fine art, founder of the first art gallery for students in the public schools of Washington, DC, and the first Black woman to have a solo show at the Whitney Museum, is today best known for her bright paintings of plants in motion. Views of fields of flowers from overhead, as if someone who loves color, maybe a baby sister child angel, is zooming by above. Born in 1891, eventually she made paintings inspired by images of space travel, another view of the heavens.
In 1935, at the age of forty-three, during a summer off from teaching art at Shaw Junior High School in segregated Washington, DC, Alma took an intensive course with Tony Sarg, often called the “father of American puppetry,” in New York City. The class entailed “one hundred hours of instruction in every phase of the Marionette Theatre.” A year before, in her master’s degree thesis in arts education from Columbia Teacher’s College, Alma had argued that the creation of a marionette theater could bring together multiple educational subjects for her students. It could also offer a beautiful way to bring her earlier work, as a costume designer for the Howard University players, the drama troupe at her beloved alma mater, into her pedagogy.
The students, Alma reasoned, would learn history while researching the characters, learn design and color theory while creating the costumes, learn shop while building and lighting the stage, learn writing while crafting the dialogue, learn drama while acting out the plays, and learn civic responsibility while reaching out to the community to attend their shows. And what did they learn while creating small people from fabric and stuffing, stringing them up from a wooden platform they had built? They learned how to animate life on their own terms.
Eventually, the Georgia trees received her anxious prayers, breathed in her carbon dioxide pleas and used them to whisper their own wonderings.
They say that by the time Alma Thomas retired from teaching at Shaw Junior High School in 1960, at least half of DC’s Black community had been her students. There is a power in being first and an even greater power in lasting. What does it mean that in the land of political puppets a woman born at the high-water mark of U.S. mob lynchings taught her students to saw the wood, connect the strings, bring joy and laughter to their families and communities by giving life to hanging dolls year after year?
Could I learn that?
my first in-depth encounter with Alma Thomas was also a sort of summer enrichment. In 2022, the photographer Joan E. Biren mentioned that I should see the new Alma Thomas retrospective “Everything is Beautiful” while it was on view at the Phillips Collection in Thomas’s hometown of Washington, DC, but I missed it. When I learned that the exhibit was showing at the Frist Art Museum in Nashville, where I happened to be passing through a few months later, to honor the retirement of crucial Black feminist theorist and teacher Hortense Spillers, I knew I couldn’t miss it. My partner and I would spend a morning there, I thought. But when I saw the scale of the paintings, the depth of the research, the philosophical wonder of Alma’s view of the world, not to mention the replicas of her fabulous outfits and her brightly appointed living room, I knew that I would need to spend more time listening to what her work was teaching me. I couldn’t stop wondering what it meant for a Black woman born at the end of the nineteenth century near Columbus, Georgia, at a time when color was used to enforce a deadly racial code, to become the greatest color theorist in the world. That wasn’t the lesson of a morning, to mull over during lunch. It seems a lesson for many lifetimes. So I never left.
rose hill, georgia. 1891. Every breath a prayer. Amelia Thomas was shaking. Would that she could be as rooted as poplar, but she had to be ready to run. Big with her first child, she prayed that the men with dogs and ropes would pass by, disperse, give up, go away. Eventually, the Georgia trees received her anxious prayers, breathed in her carbon dioxide pleas and used them to whisper their own wonderings. What tree would the mob choose next? Which of their limbs would be desecrated by the cruel white supremacist enforcement of “man’s inhumanity to man?”
Amelia survived that night in Rose Hill. But when she gave her soul to light, birthed Alma, her first child, and sang to soothe her brown baby’s dreams, she noticed that her daughter was born hard of hearing. Her fear, Amelia believed, transmitted through amniotic fluid, had blocked her baby’s listening ears. Even before she was born, Alma had heard too much.
“Through color I have sought to focus on beauty and happiness rather than on man’s inhumanity to man.” —alma thomas
once upon a time, H. E. Mahal asked four Black artists, including Alma Thomas, for their “approaches to inhumanity.” What survives is Alma’s deflection of the terms of the interview, a lament for what poet Robert Burns called “man’s inhumanity to man.” She recentered her energy. Clarified her offering: beauty, happiness. The quotation appears almost everywhere her work is displayed or discussed. Almost as if to give permission to a predominantly white set of viewers or institutions to enjoy the painter’s vibrant use of color without thinking about the cruel calculus of color in a racist world.
But the almost ubiquitous quote is not included in the profile on her work in Free Within Ourselves: African American Artists in the Collection of the National Museum of American Art (1991). This book, edited by Regenia A. Perry, instead begins its section on Alma Thomas with a quote that includes these words: “Light is the mother of color. Light reveals to us the spirit and living soul of the world through colors.”
Is that what Amelia prayed for while she hid from the lynch mob? The spirit and living soul she would name Alma? And what did the trees have to say about it?
alma thomas left georgia with her family as a child because there were no high schools that would admit a colored girl. And because Amelia already knew the sound of the Atlanta race riots, she said no more to white men once again roaming with dogs and weapons, seeking whatever parts of their souls they had bartered to whiteness. “Take off your shoes and shake all that Georgia sand out of them and don’t look back,” she told her daughters when they got to Washington, DC.
But Alma did look back.
The trees were still beckoning. And the land held more than memories of segregation and racial terror; it also held the body of Alma’s younger sister Fannie, who died of diphtheria in the early 1900s at ten years old. Fannie was the subject of Alma’s first sculpture, which she kept in her room, for the rest of her life. Maybe that’s why Alma never stopped painting those flowerbeds of Rose Hill, those elder poplar trees.
i bought the catalog at the “Everything is Beautiful” exhibit in Nashville, and then I went home and ordered a calendar and several children’s books about Alma Thomas. And for 365 days I started every morning looking at either an image of an Alma Thomas painting, or an archival photograph, or a study, or a sketch, or a puppet. And I wrote poetry that startled and astounded me. It wasn’t until I had written for a whole year that I finally read back over what I wrote. I still don’t know what it is. A partial index of my personal childhood associations with color? A testimony of the sweet taste of being in love? A listening space for Alma to whisper dreams? A psychedelic record of a year where nothing made sense and yet shone so brightly you would want to remember it?
diphtheria is a disease of fluids, transmitted through droplets holding bacteria. Today, diphtheria is rare in the United States of America because of vaccination, but when Alma Thomas was growing up the transmission of bacteria through a sneeze or a cough or from a surface could be deadly for a child. When Fannie died, the entire family must have been devastated. Maybe as the oldest sister, Alma felt custody of Fannie’s soul, an assignment to remember her well. A continuing connection. Grief also often moves through fluid substances: tears, snot, the vapor of ragged breathing. Or maybe, if you are an artist, you create a ritual.
Maybe you would use earth itself to make a replica of your little sister in her Sunday best, bow in her hair, a knowing smile. Maybe you would shape the ceramic with your hands, glaze her carefully and keep her beside you. Alma Thomas slept with a ceramic bust of her sister Fannie next to her bed throughout her entire adult life. Maybe sister is a job that death simply does not end.
When I think of Alma Thomas painting rushes of color, bright from the perspective of one flying above, I think not only of a woman whose life moved from what she called the horse and buggy age to the age of aerodynamics and into the space age, but also of a small angel’s perspective. What Alma would have wanted Fannie to see. In the most vivid of Alma Thomas’s paintings I see Fannie’s heaven, beautiful with the care an older sister might offer a little girl who didn’t get to grow up.
I’m not saying that Alma Thomas’s every painterly choice was a choice with Fannie in mind. Or that her status as an older sister and mentor to so many DC artists and Howard University students meant that older sister was a primary identity for Alma Thomas like it is for me. But I do think that if Fannie was the secret audience for her paintings and puppet shows, she did create a worthy world.
And I know that Alma Thomas’s commitment to giving her students the education her younger sister Fannie didn’t live to participate in was profound. She not only taught them during the week, she also organized after-school and Saturday trips to museums, a beauty club based on the philosophy that they would need to learn to see beauty in their own community, in themselves. Therefore, I think Alma Thomas thought about the necks of her students as she taught them to hold their heads up higher. I believe that as she taught them to stuff and stitch marionettes together, she dreamt they would learn what they were made of.
but what is the relationship between a puppet and a Black child in the early twentieth century, or a puppet and a Black grown woman in the early twenty-first century, for that matter? What I know is that I keep thinking about Alma Thomas’s work with marionette theater. I can’t stop looking at the materials listed in the caption of an image of a marionette she made: “fabric, wood, paint and strings.” What am I made of, I wondered? And so, for a whole summer, approximately one hundred hours, I wrote a series of poems where I looked at the educational encounters in my own life (broadly speaking, because isn’t birth an education? isn’t being my father’s daughter or my sister’s sister an educational experience?) and asked myself a series of questions:
What is the fabric?
What is the wood?
What is the paint?
What are the strings?
I surrendered to the possibility that I might learn about a variety of subjects if I asked these questions again and again.
fabric, wood, paint and strings (Our Savior Lutheran c. 1992)
the only one
When my family moved to South Florida in 1992, it wasn’t to escape racism. In fact, in order to be closer to my mother’s family after my parents got divorced, we moved to a town called Plantation, an accurate marker of what the land had been or a nostalgic predictor of what white people moving to newly developed apartment complexes and subdivisions might have longed for, I still don’t know.
The basic questions of puppet formation give me the opportunity to learn something more than the logic of being an individual subject of power.
If we had stayed in New Jersey, I would have started middle school, but here in Broward County I still had one more year of elementary school to go, and so my sister and I both went to Our Savior Lutheran, a small school attached to a church we did not attend, where we had to wear navy-blue tunics and penny loafers. I was the only Black girl in my grade. As far as I can remember, my sister and I may have been the only Black girls in the whole school. I remember playing four square and tetherball and hanging upside down from the monkey bars in the colorful shorts I learned to conceal under my uniform. I remember that the X-Men were popular, but I don’t think my classmates liked them for the reasons I liked them. I thought I must be made of something entirely different from my peers. And that I needed to craft what I had into a set of superpowers that could shield me from the sharp words and messy jokes of fifth graders.
fabric, wood, paint and strings (mangum st. 2005)
sitting on the floor
the words of the black woman writer deities
the hours before usual
paper always paper
and then thicker paper
and pressed black ink
And I did create a set of superpowers, or at least I thought they were superpowers, to keep myself safe in the tokenization I navigated from my earliest education right through graduate school. But by the time I moved to Durham, North Carolina to get a Ph.D. in English at Duke in 2004, I felt like I might be outgrowing my shield. And it was the trees, or at least my relationship to paper, that was helping me find ways to be present that, if not always safe, were at least accompanied. The accompaniment of ancestors, the technologies of finding other Black feminists, the feeling of contributing to a multigenerational community. I woke up early and created a Black feminist heaven and used paper to invite other people into it. I thought of myself as practicing in the tradition of post-emancipation Black schoolteachers; I imagined myself in communion with Black women who offered their creativity to generations of learning. I did not know the name Alma Thomas.
fabric, wood, paint and strings (overlook hospital 1982)
for Pauline McKenzie
that full head of hair
What is the fabric, what is the wood, what is the paint, what are the strings. Maybe this is what Alma Thomas called “transforming energy.” Returning to the scene of my own birth, a C-section in which doctors cut cords prematurely, I can reimagine the materiality of my connection to my mother and to the universe. Questioning what I am made of, I can question what we make and remake collectively. I can make space to notice and to grieve what it means that even before I was learning to be a student or a teacher, institutions averse to Black life were trying to tell me how to be born, were threatened by the time my mother needed to bring me here, were disciplining the throughline. And though I am shaped, quite literally, by all of that (my mother says when I was born I had a cone head, shaped by the tools that brought me out, not the shape of moving through her), I am not made of it. My geography is oceanic and unlimited; my beauty school is the abundant wet presence of life.
I wrote dozens of these “fabric, wood, paint, strings” stanzas. And I encourage you to write some too. The biggest result of reexamining my education is realizing that there are more subjects for me to study than I can ever name. In fact, the basic questions of puppet formation give me the opportunity to learn something more than the logic of being an individual subject of power. What happens when I take responsibility? When I say, See that energy? I’m the one who put it there.
The visionary thinker Grace Lee Boggs theorized that in addition to revolutionaries we needed solutionaries, people dedicated to finding solutions to the complex problems that face us as an interconnected mass of life. She said that if our educational systems were just that, intergenerational spaces where we figured out how to solve the problems of water supply, of how to care for each other, of sustainable food systems, we would learn all the math, all the critical thinking, all the history, all the creative writing, all the biology we would need. And what stage have you built? And what story are you acting out? And whom have you conscripted into your drama, tying their hands and feet? If only we could let our need lead our learning instead of an imperative to reproduce what we think already exists. Alma Thomas knew that too, and in her marionette practice she was a teacher of all topics. But most importantly, she offered the practice of supporting bodies and creating new stages. She gave children opportunities to play with connection and light. She asked them to invite the whole community into a story that needed telling. An alternate system created by and for Black children, a respectful use of rope and trees and breath. The pedagogy of a worthy prayer.