During the after-discussion, Winfred Rembert was asked how he felt about being around white people, given his past experiences in the segregated South, and he replied that he never minded being around white people, but it was hard getting used to white people who tell the truth. The mostly white audience at the screening, which numbered a hundred or a little more, let out an uneasy burst of laughter.
Winfred Rembert grew up in Cuthbert, Georgia, having been given to over by his mother to one of her aunts when he was only a few months old; little Winfred was a child from an extramarital affair. During his youth, he spent much of his time in the cotton fields yet very little in school. As a teenager, he became involved in Civil Rights protests in nearby towns like Albany, Georgia and Eufaula, Alabama. That involvement led to an arrest for stealing a car while trying to get away from two white men with guns. An escape followed a lynching led to a prison sentence of 27 years. Rembert spent about a year in a prison and five years on a chain gang before he was released.
As an artist, Winfred Rembert’s story transforms into a redemptive one. The leatherwork that he learned from another inmate became his primary medium, and today his work – classified as folk art or outsider art – is given its just due. The man’s work is brilliant, especially considering his lack of formal training, and his vibrant personality shines in the documentary film, All Me.
The film, which screened at Montgomery’s Capri Theatre last week, tells a somewhat disjointed narrative of Rembert’s heartbreaking biography and impressive artistic skill. I overhead someone sitting near me say, “I laughed and I cried and I wanted to know more . . .” and though I typically dislike clichéd statements like that, it was quite accurate. The mixture of this great big man’s hard-scrabble yet smiling acceptance of his life comes off as endearing and wonderfully charming. His story’s cruelty also brings legend into fact, where we very seldom hear the direct testimony of former chain gang inmates, the men who suffered this mind-numbingly intense form of modernized slavery. If I were the sort to do it, I would have gone hugged him after it was all done. (But that’s not me, so I did what I always do: listen and learn.) Winfred Rembert ended the evening by standing alone on the stage and belting out a raw, a cappella gospel hymn for those who stayed the whole time.
As a product of the segregated Deep South who later moved North searching for opportunity, Wilfred Rembert has seen the best and the worst of white people. From the brutal backwoods Georgians who lynched him to the modern-day Yankees who have pushed his work into high-priced markets and prestigious museums, Rembert just smiles his way through knowing that the local Cuthbert merchants who once told his aunt that he “would never amount to a goddam thing” were completely and totally wrong.