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The eyes weren’t perfect so he smoothed them away. The javelin, a spear aimed at the fearful remained the only thing that seemed right. It stood there frozen in the thrower’s hand like a shaft of liberty. The body of the man neared perfection. Each muscle and tendon told a tale of exercising, manipulating the physical form all through the power of the mind. Every line meant something. The thighs meant lower body strength that would sustain the thrower in his moment of truth. The onyx pestered him. It bothered him. He wanted to slice at the eyes, blinding the sculpture. This was May of 1928 in Wilmington, Delaware, and the heat began to drive the sculptor to even greater heights. Despite the intense hotness, he worked until the project was up to his standards. Upton Colmes sweated great beads that seemed like translucent beetles scaling down from his forehead. The work had meant to him that he would be able to free himself from the bondage of inertia. In his mind, he viewed any signs of lethargy as giving in, giving up too quickly. His black skin glistened with each and every touch of the electric bulbs in his studio.
“Upton, now. I done told you to get some water. It should be much cooler down here. We need water for these plants, I,” Georgietta Colmes stopped abruptly when she reached the bottom of the stairs of the stifling basement in their Market Street duplex. She held in her hand a watering jug, and in the other hand some seeds. Her gaze went to the statue. Again, it wasn’t perfect enough for other eyes, the Summer Olympics jury’s own eyes to see. But it gleamed. Nostrils flared. Cheeks puffed. Chest tightened. Legs looked sturdy. Georgietta took in all of this and stood in silence as her husband chipped away at the piece. With the pieces falling to the floor, she thought of black snow drifting to the ground. It was a thought that would suffice given the current weather conditions remained the exact opposite of a snowy day. She observed all of the facets of the sculpture in mere minutes. She admired the feet, made strong and durable on the pedestal. It reminded her of Colmes. His resolve to do something stayed matchless among the other artists that she had encountered. The lights around the studio flickered like sparks. They added to the sweltering feeling, but remained necessary to shine a light on the situation.
“I’ll have the water momentarily,” Colmes said without even looking at his wife. She approached the sculpture as if it were a monarch positioned on a throne.
She found her tongue, “Well, I will have to plant these seeds myself.”
Georgietta took another look at the sculpture and then rustled upstairs.
The eyes seemed better, not perfect, but better. Each vein and sinew told a tale of triumph in progress. He kept smoothing and smoothing. Colmes chiseled and excised unnecessary pieces. Now the eyes looked perfect. Colmes stood back and gazed at his work. He did not smile. He bowed, he thought. Or maybe he saluted. He clutched the finished product in his hand. A surge of pride shot through him like an electric current. He replaced the statue on the pedestal. He took off his artist’s attire and headed up the stairs. Georgietta stood at the sink washing her hands.
“I’ve got supper started so you get cleaned up after–” Colmes grabbed his wife by the waist and planted a kiss on her lips.
“You’ve done wonderful work, Mr. Colmes,” Georgietta said with a grin. It was a grin that said thank you and you’re welcome at the same time.
“I’m sure to win that Summer Games competition.”
Colmes look soured.
“What’s wrong, honey?”
“You know those white boys aren’t going to like a black sculptor with a black sculpture. I mean, what if I don’t even qualify?”
“Don’t you worry about that, Darling,” Geogietta said. “There’s going to be no one with as much talent and skill as you possess that can come close to the sculpture.”
“I finished it.”
“You’re all done?”
Colmes nodded his head yes.
Georgietta clapped her hands. “This is going to put Delaware on the map. ‘Mr. Upton Colmes, gold-medal winning sculptor.'”
“Now, we aren’t quite there yet.”
“But that’s how you’ve got to think.”
“No, it’s not.”
There seemed to be quiet anger brewing in Upton. Flashbacks of a white gang smashing an earlier worked crept into his psyche. It was night in May that was cooler than this time, and he had just graduated from the New Sweden University. On his way home, he held in his hands a diploma and a piece that he created for the occasion. It was a mortarboard and tassel in bronze. Three white youths stopped him in the street. Two held his arms back while the other knocked the work to the ground and stomped on it. It was smashed and distorted beyond recognition. Colmes was unhurt physically, but the psychic scars persisted.
“Oh, I know what you’re thinking of, now. Baby that was over a decade ago when you were in school. Those boys were drunk and stupid…”
“And racist, yes. But you’ll be in the Netherlands this time. Amsterdam’s calling. These Olympics will be color blind.”
“I’m doing it, but I just don’t see it.”
“Don’t see what?”
“I don’t see how those white folks over there are any less prejudiced than what we have right here.”
“Baby, there’s nothing to worry about on that front. This state is a Northern state that has its own issues. Amsterdam is full of people, including those judges, who will see your work and enjoy it.”
Colmes mind went to the sculpture. Its lines and forms and shapes, all perfect. The onyx figure spoke of truth as he prepares to launch the javelin into flight. Determination is embedded in those eyes that took so long to get just right. He realized that his work would be his spirit made physical. Georgietta looked at her husband’s stern face.
“Why don’t you smile? You’ve got the earth in your palm, and it’s twirling round and round.”
“I’ve got pains and worries.”
“What pain? What worry? You’ve got nothing to fear.”
“I didn’t say that I feared anything or anyone, for that matter.”
One of those boys that smashed up my work is going to be a judge at the competition. He was selected by the board to be a part of the international committee. I may not have a chance.”
Georgietta caught her breath. “Is that something you should concern yourself with? I mean maybe the boy has gotten turned around ever since those days. He might even be an independent thinker.”
“I doubt it.”
“That piece is so beautiful. So powerful. It can be in its own competition.”
“I don’t believe you,” Colmes said waving his hand. He had now taken a seat. He smelled the onions that would go with the pot roast that the two would have for dinner.
“You don’t believe me? What about this wedding ring? Do you believe that? What about all the nights that you stayed up to complete your other works that have, and, for tonight, eventually put food on the table?” She flashed the gold circle on her finger in his face. “Do you believe that?”
Colmes looked outside of the kitchen window. He noticed a street car rolling down the road.
“We’ve formed a bond that will never be broken. That bond has lasted us for nearly three years. No, we don’t have children. Our lines of work are our children. I’m at home and you’re the sculptor. They can do whatever with what we do. We’ve done the part that counts. I don’t give a damn if they smash that work to pieces, either. Let them. The only thing that they’ll be hurting will be themselves. The fact remains that you created something in the first place. Whatever evil descends on it, or whatever opinion lowers its status is on them, not on you.”
Colmes just looked at his lady. She had gotten fiery in her rhetoric as she prepared the meal for the two of them. Her pause in her preparation signaled that she meant every word.
“All I’m saying is,” Colmes laughed, “I don’t have the money or the time to repair any more sculptures. They’re just going to have to deal with that one, and that one alone. I could see it winning gold. I could see that one son of a bitch judge turning it down, too. I’m not mad. I just want to make sure that my work gets a fair shake. But I don’t believe that you really understand what I’m up against.”
“I don’t…” Georgietta threw her hands in the air. She then pointed her right thumb to her chest. “I completely understand the whole situation. That onyx is going to shock them from the beginning. That black body that black face made by a mind that doesn’t care about color will certainly be a contender amongst the array of other competitors. I understand that. There’s a judge that could’ve ruined your career, but didn’t, I understand that. And I also understand that you are Upton ‘Uppity’ Colmes. You chart new territories with your art.”
“‘Uppity,’” he laughed, “I haven’t heard that since college. Those days seem so far away. But, yes. I’d look a white man in the eye and demand my respect. Even up here where it’s expected that white folks are not as oppressive as Southerners, I’d look at a white police officer with the same level eye as any other man. If that makes me ‘uppity’ then I’m alright with that. But that’s what I’d tell them white boys. I’d say, ‘I’m one of those uppity Negroes.’ Maybe that’s why I got my work smashed to bits. I’ve got too much backbone. So, they’ll do anything to destroy what’ve worked for this whole time. It’s like I’ve never been able to fully grasp how these servile colored folks can go around saying I’ll never make it to the Olympics or that the white people will say that I should stay in my place.”
“But you don’t have to worry about any of that.”
Colmes cocks his head at his wife.
“You see, I know that it is a work that is too good for this world. That’s why they want to denigrate or even destroy it. But if they’re anything like me, I know that greatness can survive in this world. That greatness has and must survive. From the ancient artifacts to those small but gleaming buildings down the street, greatness, the capacity to translate thought into concrete form has sustained the human race. There’s nothing to worry about.”
Colmes sat erect at the table. He never slouched, even in his moments of doubt and a brief bout with anxiety. He held onto the fact that he must exhibit his work. Colmes extracted a pen and pad and began to sketch. The figure was the exact figure of the sculpture downstairs. The lines looked true and bold and penetrating. He drew furiously with the intent to dazzle himself and possibly his wife.
“What’s that,” Georgietta said.
“That's the sculpture with gold medal around it.”
“All of that is thinking positive.”
“I just want to be able to make art and not have to worry about the color of my skin being a factor, or the color of the sculpture being a deciding factor in my work. I just want it to breathe and be its own. To hell with things that don’t mean anything substantial like skin color. The amount of effort that I exert when fashioning these pieces ought to be the beginning. Whether I make a work that can stand up to my own sense of taste is something different altogether. But I’m doing it. I don’t care about what those judges have to say.”
“That’s what I like to hear,” Georgietta said. “What’s the name of the sculpture?”