Conversation: Russell L. Goings

BY Arts Desk  May 8, 2009 at 1:51 PM EST

Russell L. Goings; photo by James CooperTo sit down and talk with Russell Goings, you would never guess he came to poetry later in life. Stories rich with allusions drawn from the gods of antiquity to the pioneers of the African-American journey to freedom pour out of Goings in a natural rhythm that reveals his connection to the blues and gospel, Homer and Shakespeare.

At the age of 77, that poetic passion is clearly on display in his first book, ‘The Children of Children Keep Coming,’ an epic Griot song chronicling the black experience in America. From the slaves abducted from West Africa, to the courage demonstrated by the likes of Sojourner Truth, Fredrick Douglas and Harriet Tubman, and in modern times, Jackie Robinson, the book-length poem is charged with an almost locomotive style and force, particularly when read aloud.

“As a people, we must have a grand narrative,” said Goings. “It’s only 144 years since we have been out of slavery. That ain’t a long time. We go from being enslaved to president of the United States, but during this time period we have yet to come up — we had something in dance and we got something in various forms of music — but we need to have the beginning of a grand narrative.”

Goings graduated from Xavier University in Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1959 as a star athlete. He briefly played professional football, but instead of pursuing fortune on the gridiron, Goings went to Wall Street. He proved a skilled investor, rising to become the first black brokerage manager for a New York Stock Exchange member firm. Later, he became the first black owner of an investment firm, which managed the assets of some of the world’s largest companies along with many legendary athletes and entertainers. He was a co-founder of Essence magazine and became the chairman of the Studio Museum in Harlem.

It was during his time at the Studio Museum that Goings discovered many leading black artists: Jacob Lawrence, Charles White, Elizabeth Catlett and Romare Bearden, with whom he struck up a deep friendship. Bearden became extremely influential in Goings’ life: they spent nearly every day together for 12 years roaming bookstores, museums and discussing a wide range of literature and art. Goings recorded much of their time together in notebooks and hours of audio recordings. He also became heir to one of the largest collections of Bearden’s works in the world. From the first collage Bearden created, to the last, Goings’ collection includes numerous rarely seen drawings and sketches.

The inspiration for “The Children of Children” came from a set of Bearden’s felt pen and watercolor drawings that depicts key figures of the black narrative. Romare Bearden felt the epic struggle of blacks needed to be told in a worthy form. He charged Goings with the task, a task which Goings would fulfill many years later. In the mid-1990s (having cared for Bearden until his death in 1988) he returned to school at Fairfield University, where he studied writing and began to work on his Griot song.

Says Goings, to “do this in a form that allows me to express who I am, something about our people and put it into a literary form that perhaps will have some legs — that would mean something.”