Missing brushstrokes

Doretha Hair Truesdell remembers racing to grab her keys and running to get to the car. She sped down Dunbar Street so fast it felt like her vehicle swung the corner on two wheels. But as she hurtled to the hospital that August night, the grim reality started to sink in: There was no need to rush. Her husband was already dead.

In the days that followed, fresh fears closed in. Without her husband, there was no income, and she had four mouths to feed. Her youngest was barely 7 weeks old, and the eldest, not yet 7 years.

The funeral had to be paid for on credit. Alfred Hair was laid to rest under a plain concrete slab—no headstone, no frills. Just a flat marker engraved with the essentials: name, date of birth, and date of death. That, and a profession: artist.

“Gone but not forgotten,” the cemetery entrance reads. It was cold comfort, but prophetic in Alfred’s case: Decades would pass, but one day, he would grow more famous than he had ever been in life.

In some ways, the story told about Alfred Hair is the story told about many great artists. It’s the tale of a prodigy cut down before his time, before his genius could reach its height, before his impact could be fully felt. It’s a tale of injustice. And more often than not, it’s a man’s tale.

Time would turn experience into memory, and memory into haze. Man would morph into myth. In that myth, supporting characters would take shape: friend, mentor, child, wife.

Doretha felt that pressure, to become scaffolding in another man’s story. She heard it sometimes, too.

“You’re just the wife. That’s what I was told. You’re the wife,” she says. “It’s as though you didn’t exist. I mean, how do you write someone out of history?” She was determined not to be erased.

Discover more about the artist Doretha Hair Truesdell in this profile for Scalawag Magazine.

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