“My work is of the soul.”
—Meta Vaux Warrick Fuller
Meta Vaux Warrick Fuller (1877-1968) was an an African-American sculptor, painter and poet. She was friends with Toulouse-Lautrec, Mary Cassatt, and W.E.B. Dubois, and she was a protege of Auguste Rodin.
One of her masterworks is a bronze sculpture called “Talking Skull.” In it a young man kneels on the ground, hunched forward. He is lithe,slender, unclothed. Before him, resting in the dirt, a skull looks up at him as he looks down. His hands are splayed palm-forward in the dirt before the skull. His head is slightly tilted, as if to hear better. His lips are parted, perhaps just having asked a question, and awaiting the answer.
The narrative situation is unclear. Has the young man dug the skull up? Has he stumbled upon it in the woods by chance? Has he come, unprotected and unarmed, seeking guidance, insight, solace? Is he listening to the skull of one he knew?
In the case of “Talking Skull,” she may have simply made a portrait of herself. Although she was renowned and highly accomplished, the arts establishment in her home city of Philadelphia shunned her due to her race. Perhaps it is she imploring her ancestors—who might very well have been slaves—to tell how she might endure discrimination and rejection. Perhaps she was seeking that other voice that might tell her how to get on.
What is certain is that the sculpture is meant to show the necessity of listening to what the past has to teach. In the man’s face there is a sense of desperation and supplication. “O Past, tell me what you know. Tell me how to survive. Teach me so that I can live right.”
The distance between youth and death is great, and there is much to be learned. A dialogue with our past can be a revelation of self, a reevaluation of who we are and what we are becoming. We must converse with our forebears, express gratitude the life they made for us. I must remember who taught me, who made the world which I inhabit, who gave life for my own. I exist because of the past, and I have a duty to learn from and honor it with all that I am.
Leaders of people and nations have a higher responsibility, for it is not only their own lives which they must consider. They must come in naked supplication—for their constituencies, for children, for the infirm or needy, for the weak and vulnerable. Leaders must listen to the past, must become masters of its architecture. You must set aside personal compulsions and place the world of others at the center.
In those rooms of past, in the old deeds and causes of our ancestors, is the foundation upon which our fragile present rests. The past provides a road map of failure and success. The past is a guide. The past is prologue. You must kneel down in the dirt among the bones, gaze long and listen, divining the whispered words.