The brothers from Plainview: A story cast through the precepts of literary conflict
Written by Leara Rhodes
Once upon a time there were two brothers, sons of sharecroppers in Morgan County, Georgia, more specifically, Plainview, just outside of Madison. There were ten children born of Viola and George Andrews, but for this story, there are two to be talked about: Benny and Raymond. This is not a fairy tale; it is a true story of two brothers, alike yet different, a story that needs to be remembered because these brothers lived through their own literary conflict, and because these brothers were raised in the South during a time of racial conflict, overwhelming poverty with few choices; yet, they made life happen with two endings: creative successes and a suicide. Both endings need to be talked about; there should be no more secrets. These brothers succeeded and suffered in spite of the odds against them. This is their story. Spoiler alert: there is no fairy tale ending, only hope.
Man vs. Society
As sons of sharecroppers in the South, Benny was born in 1930 and Raymond in 1934, life was not easy. It was the Great Depression and cotton was still the main crop of the rural South. William Jackson Orr owned The Oaks Plantation that stretched from Plainview to Buckhead in Morgan County, described in miles rather than acres. His son, James, fell in love with Jesse Andrews, the wife of a black hired hand on the Orr plantation. History is full of these stories. James and Jesse had George who at 17 married Viola. They became the parents of Benny and Raymond. The father, George, worked the cotton fields until he began to sharecrop on land owned by C. R. Mason. As the family grew, the brothers also worked in the cotton fields. The family lived in the shadows of their white ancestors in plain view of the Greek revival style house where their grandfather had been raised, but they lived in poverty with 12 mouths to feed, 12 bodies to clothe, 12 pairs of feet to fit shoes. Poverty, however, was not the only obstacle in Benny’s and Raymond’s lives; they grew up in a no man’s land between white and black in the 30s and 40s in rural Georgia; a mixture of race that people still find difficult talking about. Secrets of race belie the eye but are kept out of the daily conversation. Society as it existed in the South in the 30s and 40s was not a great place to raise two brothers as black but who were light skinned. Society’s issue with race was clearly stacked against them.
Man vs. Nature
The mother, Viola, wanted more for her children. The brothers were encouraged to read and to pursue an education. Their father, George, who later became a folk artist, encouraged creativity. Mental visions of him creating toys and objects leap to mind, objects made from found wood, cloth, straw and, of course, cotton. The lessons were not lost on the two brothers. In their free time Raymond poured over magazines and newspapers and Benny copied illustrations from them developing his own artistic style. After several years at Plainview Elementary School, Benny attended the Burney Street High School and became the first member of his family to graduate. To get an education, he had to conquer a bit of nature. With no money and no transportation, he walked three miles to Madison along the country back roads, past pecan orchards, past houses of white families, past ponds feeding into streams along the way. In the heat produced in Southern “dog days” at the end of the summer, Benny would swat at the gnats circling his head, tuck his books close to his side and try not to think about the shouts and jeers coming from the busses loaded with the white children going into school in Madison. It was no surprise that after he graduated, he moved to Atlanta at the first opportunity.
Raymond followed; he was 15. Raymond was a large “red-skinned” black man. Benny was “light-skinned.” He and Benny lived at the Butler Street YMCA. This was not a bad place to live and probably fed Benny’s future activism and Raymond’s written portraits. The YMCA was known as the Black City Hall of Atlanta (located in what is now referred to as the Sweet Auburn Historic District). The elegant Georgian revival building was 10,000 square feet, with 48 dormitory rooms, seven classrooms, a small auditorium, a gymnasium, a swimming pool, shower baths, a café, and restrooms. It was the center of social life for black men in Atlanta. Not too bad for two brothers from Plainview to call it home.
Raymond worked during the day as a hospital orderly and attended night classes at Booker T. Washington High School. Nature was determined to make life difficult for the brothers with hard work, low wages, and no real home life. Living in a dorm may have provided them with a sense of community but it was not a home. Both men seemed to be plodding on through life as light colored, intelligent men. They fought to get ahead by working hard and by learning in spite of nature getting in their way. Benny was awarded a two-year scholarship by the 4-H club and enrolled at Fort Valley State College where he took the only art course offered, Art Appreciation, six times. Poor grades and no money propelled Benny to join the U.S. Air Force. After being honorably discharged, he used the G.I. Bill to begin studies at the Art Institute of Chicago in Illinois. Nature was definitely stacked against Benny: He had never visited an art museum nor had a formal art lesson. There had never been money to do those things, nor the time, nor as a black man would he be encouraged. The Art Institute was not kind to Benny.
Man vs. Man
Even though the Art Institute was longstanding and advertised that it would foster artists in the modern arts, the Art Institute chose who and what would be promoted and that did not include Benny’s work. During the years he attended the Art Institute, Benny’s work was never chosen for a show and was rejected from every art show at the institute including the veterans’ exhibition, which had a single exhibition requirement – military service. After he was awarded a bachelor of fine arts, he again moved on. This time he moved to New York and was determined to not let “man” stop him.
Raymond followed Benny into the U.S. Air Force and served in Korea. He attended Michigan State University but then also moved to New York. His jobs included air courier and airline agent, but it was the airline agent job that pushed him over the edge and he went from handling the day-to-day problems of the airline industry to writing full-time. As the story has been told, one day after a long conversation with a disgruntled person on the phone, Raymond put the receiver down and just walked out. It was his 32nd birthday. He started writing full-time the very next day. He, too, was determined to not let “man” stop him.
Within six years Benny’s career was in plain view, meaning his art was in many noteworthy galleries and exhibits. His original drawings were based on observed gestures and expressions he had seen in life. Then he began using collages. His goal was to create a rawness and tension within his work. Reviewers of his work say he was influenced by abstract expressionism and surrealism but also with social realism and the American scene. Benny’s work was exhibited all over the world. He taught at Queens College of the City University of New York and was a guest lecturer in many other universities. He received a John Hay Whitney Fellowship that allowed him to return to Georgia. It was that trip that inspired several series of work to include the Bicentennial, Women I’ve Known, Completing the Circle, Southland, America, Cruelty and Sorrows, Revival, Music, Langston Hughes, and The Migrants.
The story of the brothers has been one that may be typical of struggling artists; but, we have to remember that these brothers were also products of the South. Judy Long, former editor of Hill Street Press in Athens, and a long-time friend of Raymond, defines characteristics of Southern fiction as having a sense of place and home. In a presentation to the Harriette Austin Writers Conference in 2001 in Athens, Judy said, “home is a potent word of a Southerner, a deep involvement with family and ritual, a celebration of eccentricity, a strong narrative voice, themes of racial guilt and human endurance, local tradition, a sense of impending loss, a pervasive sense of humor in the face of the tragic, and an inability to leave the past behind.”
Then Philip Lee Williams comes into the brother’s lives. Philip is the author of dozens of books, grew up in the Madison area, but when he first met Benny and then Raymond, he was editor of Atraxia magazine from 1974-1978 in Madison, an offshoot of The Madisonian newspaper in business for 150 years. Philip had read the Time magazine article about an African-American artist from Madison who was having a show at the Whitney in New York. Philip wanted to know more about a fellow Madisonian, he contacted Benny, got an interview and found out Benny was coming to Georgia. They arranged to meet for photographs and in the process became friends. In 1976, when the Madison-Morgan Cultural Center mounted a display of Benny’s drawings, Philip helped hang the show in the middle of the night. Many of the Andrews family members attended the opening. This is when Philip met Raymond. Though Raymond was 16 years older than Philip, they hung out all week and through the years Philip and Raymond visited each other in New York and in Athens. A mutual interest was sports.
“Raymond was a walking encyclopedia of sports in America between 1940 and 1965,” remembers Philip. “Raymond would spend the weekend with us out at the farm in Oconee County. Raymond didn’t drive so I would go and pick him up and we’d stop and get a case of beer – he only drank beer – and we’d watch sports the entire weekend. Raymond would compare whatever we were watching to history. Amazing.”
Benny and his wife, Nene, had purchased land and built a cottage off Morton Road, just outside of Athens as a studio retreat from New York life. Raymond was writing but had published nothing. The first piece of Raymond’s to be published was in Philip’s magazine, a portion of Appalachee Red. They had planned on Philip publishing more of the story. “I got a letter from Raymond talking about this and that and on page 3 he tells me he sold a book to Dial. That was so typical of Raymond to not shout it out up front,” says Philip.
Man vs. self.
The brothers persevered. Benny taught, created, and became an activist. He co-founded the Black Emergency Cultural Coalition and led protests to bring awareness and inclusion of work by minority and women artists into major collections and exhibitions. He also established an art program in the New York state prison system, which has served as a model for other programs. The Benny Andrews Foundation, established by Benny and by Nene Humphrey, aims to introduce art to as vast and diverse an audience as possible. Benny’s life experiences obviously remained vivid enough for him to put into place methods to help other minority artists.
Raymond, in the mean time, had an article published in Sports Illustrated about the first time the game of football was played in Plainview, Georgia. Then he began the series of books about being black in the rural South, the Muskhogean trilogy: Appalachee Red (1978), Rosiebell Lee Wildcat Tennessee (1980), and Baby Sweet’s (1983).
“Raymond wanted to be known and respected as a writer,” says Philip. “He loved Faulkner and turned Morgan County into his own fiction playground by creating the Muskhogean trilogy.”
After the third book is when I met Raymond at the Council of Authors and Journalists, a weeklong writing workshop held each June on St. Simons Island at Epworth-by-the-Sea. He came as the fiction instructor for the week-long classes. I had my toddler daughter with me while I was helping to direct the day-to-day activities of the conference. Raymond came to my hotel door with a request that would mean I needed to leave the room. My daughter was napping. Raymond offered to sit and wait in the room. I left to return 15 minutes later to find my daughter awake, wide-eyed on the bed on her stomach listening to Raymond spin a tale. Raymond had a gift of telling stories.
Charles Connor met him at that same conference. “I had read all of Raymond’s books and loved them. He really portrayed the black community in a real way, a way I had not read in other books,” says Charles, a retired psychologist, who has written his own memoir book. Charles was looking to Raymond as a teacher and they corresponded quite often for a while. “Raymond was not much of a teacher, but he told wonderful stories about how he began to write.”
Time passed, the brothers were actively creating. Benny was getting known internationally. Raymond moved to the cottage outside of Athens and settled into the community. “We had this writer’s group, Judith Cofer, Sara Baker, me, and Ray, and a couple of people from out of town,” says Judy. “We’d meet at Rocky’s Pizza. It was very casual with friends and beer.” She had walked over to the coffee shop in Five Points in Athens and settled in to talk about her friend, Ray. She talked about how she would go pick Raymond up at the cottage and take him down to Madison to hang out with his father, George, the “Dot Man,” who would paint anything and everything. If it was a Styrofoam tray from packaging, he would paint it. They’d eat barbeque and hang out.
Hanging out with other writers was something Raymond loved. At the Roots in Georgia symposium organized by Stan Lindbergh in 1985, Ray was a natural, according to Philip. “Ray adored being an author and would talk to anybody about his work.” Raymond stayed with Philip for three days during the symposium. There would be parties every night and folks drank way too much yet Raymond looked like a shiny new penny to Philip. Finally Philip said, “We have to go, I am exhausted.” Raymond reluctantly agreed and left. “Ray was happy, and when he drank he was happier. He would compliment you but when he was drinking he would compliment you ten times more.”
Charles was still corresponding with Raymond about writing. He and his wife, Lisa, retired director of the Steffen Thomas Art Museum in Buckhead that houses her father’s art collection, were active at the time in the Gwinnett Arts Council. They invited Raymond to speak and hosted a reception at their home.
Charles remembers, “He took the Greyhound bus from Athens to the intersection near our house where we picked him up in Grayson. At the Arts Council he told stories of how he got involved in writing. We had invited everyone we knew who we thought might be interested in meeting Raymond and there was a young man there who lived in Athens who volunteered to take Raymond back home. We had intended for him to spend the night and take him back the next day, but it suited Raymond to go on back after the reception.”
Both brothers were basking in the success of their art in plain view of everybody. Raymond had won the James Baldwin Prize for fiction in 1979 and Benny became the director of the National Endowment for the Arts’ Visual Arts Program. However, whereas Benny had learned how to get publicity for his work, Raymond had not. There had always been competition between the brothers. Raymond wrote about this in his memoir, The Last Radio Baby (1990) describing his childhood years. His last book, Jessie and Jesus and Cousin Claire (1991) is also telling about the differences between the brothers. The book is two novellas about two powerful African-American women who were quite different yet determined to have their way.
Among Raymond’s writing friends was Terry Kay, also an author of dozens of books. “We talked several times,” says Terry. “I saw him more of a character than those he wrote about.” Terry stirred his decaf coffee, his signature white hair repeated on his fingers holding the Waffle House spoon. He clarifies his viewpoint in an email, “What Raymond brought to the literature of his environment was personality – his personality. He was one of the few people I have known blessed with the sort of benevolent charisma that gives permanence to one’s work. Without that personality, his writing might be judged historically as creditable, but less than spectacular. Still, the personality was there – and is there – and that makes Raymond special.” In a series for PBS, Terry offered the following discourse on Southern writing: “It has long been my contention that two major themes remain in Southern literature – race and the decentralization of the unit (family, community, etc.) system with four elements: family, place, religion, and gossip or oral history.”
Did Raymond write using these two themes? Certainly he wrote about race. And to prove he was a writer, Raymond wrote. Every morning he would write out in long hand on a yellow legal pad and in the afternoon he would type what he had written. As the brothers worked in different areas of the country, tension increased between them when Benny wanted to come down to the Athens studio cottage more often and that would mean Raymond would need to leave and go to New York. Raymond’s publisher, Dial, had folded and was no longer publishing Raymond’s books. Peachtree Publishers was courted and did publish Jessie and Jesus and Cousin Clair. The summer of 1991 was bad for Raymond in New York. He returned to Athens frustrated and despondent.
“Raymond was really struggling,” says Philip. “He wanted to make a living as a writer, which at best is highly impractical. I have never even considered it. I did three jobs: public affairs, college teaching, and writing novels to make it work.”
On November 25, 1991, Benny was in Athens. Raymond was out at the cottage. Philip was overwhelmed with a new book and a new baby. Judy was headed out of town. “I knew Raymond had asked some friends to take something to the dump,” says Judy. “He had said he had a lump on his throat but it was nothing. And he said he was leaving the cottage and taking care of things was all.”
Philip confirmed Raymond’s troubles. “I was so busy. Ray had said he had this swollen place on his neck but had no health insurance. He said he had had a bad summer in New York and that Benny was threatening to stop supporting him,” says Philip. “I called the cottage on November 25 and Benny answered the phone. ‘He did this for me,’ said Benny. Raymond had gone into the back yard and shot himself.” November 25 was Judy’s birthday. “I know Ray left a note,” says Judy, “I’ve just never seen it.” Philip verified that he saw a suicide note in Jesse Freeman’s 2010 documentary, Somebody Else, Somewhere Else: The Raymond Andrews Story, but had never paused the video to read the note.
At the memorial service held in the Atlanta Public Library, Benny invited everyone there to join him at a bar in Buckhead in Atlanta. Charles remembers that half a dozen people accepted, he and a friend, Jo Ann Adkins, managing editor of the Chattahoochee Review, which later published Raymond’s last manuscript, showed up at the bar. Benny insisted on paying for everything. Benny talked about the arrangements between the brothers and the difficulties between them. He told them there had been a shouting match on the phone earlier in the day. Benny had told Raymond that he had to move out of the cottage and that he was not going to support him financially. Then Benny drove over to the cottage and found Raymond dead in the back yard.
New studies out indicate that among artistic disciplines, writers were over represented among people with schizophrenia, depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety syndrome, and substance abuse problems, according to a study by Simon Kyag et al. published in the Journal of Psychiatric Research (October 11, 2012). The study, “Mental Illness, Suicide and Creativity: 40 Year Prospective Total Population Study,” studied 1.2 million patients and found that authors were also almost twice as likely to commit suicide as the general population. There are numerous examples historically to back up this study: David Foster Wallace, Ernest Hemingway, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, and Virginia Woolf. Yet stating that this happens is not the whole picture. Our society, the narrative we live under stresses that we can be anything we want if we try hard enough. However, Mateo Sol, in his article “Suicide, Creativity, Depression and the Solace of Solitude,” published on the Loner Wolf blog (www.lonerwolf.com) suggests that freedom can be a burden. Freedom of choice, he says, places the whole blame and regret of failure on the shoulders of the individual. Our Western pressure of being an individual and comparing ourselves against each other creates a tension when considering how much we have progressed towards our goals of success. Then there is the pressure creative people feel when the well runs dry, when there are no more books in us to write.
The narrative of the two brothers and how they lived through their own literary conflict can be representative of other creative people. Creative people often struggle with the demands placed on them by society, the limitations of nature they were born into; the stopping places man imposes on minorities and then the stresses creative people place on themselves in competition with others, including one’s brother.
Raymond’s final manuscript, Once upon a time in Atlanta, was published in the Chattahoochee Review in 1998, seven years after his death. He was inducted into the Georgia Writers Hall of Fame in 2009. Raymond’s ashes were scattered out at the cottage where he loved to walk among the trees with his cats trailing behind. Benny illustrated all of Raymond’s books. Benny died of cancer in November of 2006 in New York.
The take-away of this narrative, perhaps, is that we need to talk about depression and suicide in our society along with issues of race and poverty. Many suicides can be prevented if we don’t keep mental health issues a secret. We celebrate Benny’s and Raymond’s careers because it makes us proud that people from such an impoverished background can succeed against society, against nature, against man, but also against self. Now we must talk about why Raymond took his life and no one heard him take his last breath even though his struggles were in plain view. There should be no more secrets about mental health and depression.
Boys Playing Ball after Dark
By Judson Mitcham,
(Poet Laureate of Georgia 2012, Georgia Writer’s Hall of Fame, Townsend Award Writer)
In memory of Raymond Andrews
A man takes a walk one afternoon
When the red sun’s guttering in the pines,
And he doesn’t wear a coat, though it’s cold.
There’s no one on the road. He will recall
The sweetness in the air, the burning leaves,
But this is what he loves:
Discovering the boys playing ball
Out of season, for as long as it is possible,
And the game going on after that,
So the boy at bat sees the silhouette
Of the other child moving on the sky,
but not the ball, thrown and on its way.
He doesn’t stop and interrupt their game
But still can hear their voices back at home,
And so he gives them names, he lets them talk
He offers them a world, as from the dark,
He returns once again to his work.