The H3O/Art of Life Blog
"The Life and Legacy of An Icon"
By Dr. Mary Ann Cain
Presented by Omni-University
Having written the first and, to date, only biography of our ancestor, Dr. Margaret Taylor Goss Burroughs, I am often asked what prompted me. Some of that back story is included in the introduction to South Side Venus: The Legacy of Margaret Burroughs, which will be briefly summarized here as well. I will also elaborate on how her long-lasting legacy carried me through the seven-year process of writing her story.
Not all biographers have an acquaintance with their subjects. However, in my case, had I not met Dr. Burroughs and continued my contact with her over the last seven years of her life, it is unlikely that I would have even known who she was, let alone have written a book about her. I will always be grateful that fate played a hand in our convergence.
As Debra Hand has noted in her letter of gratitude to Dr. Burroughs(1), meeting Dr. Burroughs “set me on a mission . . .[t]o try to be responsible for the great gift” she had given me, not only by allowing me to interview her about Bronzeville for a novel I was writing, but also by considering how my artistic work could continue her own legacy of social justice and the uplift of humanity.
I grew up in a white-flight suburb near Chicago’s South Side in the 1960s and 70s, and had never heard of either the Bronzeville neighborhood , The DuSable Museum or, Dr. Burroughs, its principal founder. But when I started researching for a novel in 2003, the nascent internet led me to the DuSable Museum's website and, with the South Side as my topic, prompted me to visit the museum. My conversation with registrar Theresa Christopher opened many doors that, at the time, I had no idea I would either want or need to step through; she provided names and phone numbers of luminaries on the South and West sides, including Dr. Burroughs herself. The generosity and kindnesses extended to me by Dr. Burroughs was equally present in the staff members at The Du Sable Museum. And as I met and interviewed those who knew Dr. Burroughs, I observed how her spirit lived through them and seemed to guide me wherever I went.
After granting the initial interview for background on Bronzeville, Dr. Burroughs provided me the opportunity to reciprocate, namely by suggesting she give a talk and a workshop at my university. At that time, I knew only that she was The DuSable Museum’s main founder and that she was not only a visual artist but a writer as well. I was humbled by her request and silently wondered why someone so prominent in her community would want to come to my corner of northeast Indiana. Serving as a "Real Model" turned out to be typical of Dr. Burroughs insofar as she wanted others to consider their own legacies as they learned about hers. She also wanted to raise funds for the purchase of art supplies for her “sons” in Stateville and Joliet prisons. Her motto: “If you don’t ask, you won’t get,” was very much a part of what I came to know about her, for had she not asked, I would never have come to understand and appreciate her immense gifts, as well as be the recipient of many of them.
Upon her passing in November 2010, I reflected on the deep and profound sense of loss I felt. The world had lost a great being, yet how many people really knew what had been lost? The next spring I gave a talk on her life and legacy as part of a local coffeehouse series in a community group dedicated to promoting West African arts and culture. Afterwards, I instantly knew that I wanted to write her story.
In some ways, the legacy of the community she had done so much to create carried me far, from person to person and place to place. All I had to say was that I was working on a book about Dr. Burroughs, and I would be invited to sit down and talk. Then I would receive lists of names of even more people to contact. The enthusiasm for my project was immense, as was the openness and hospitality I received in pursuit of my research. No one ever hesitated or questioned me regarding my intentions as long as my purpose was to contribute to the preservation of Dr. Burroughs' legacy. That was all that anyone needed to hear. I would travel from Fort Wayne to Chicago via the South Shore Railroad and stay in a South Loop hotel, traveling to Bronzeville or Chatham or Washington Park or the West side, on buses and trains and taxis. But when I couldn’t find transportation, somehow a ride was always available through those who knew Dr Burroughs. If I asked, I received.
I received so much more in the process of interviewing those who knew Dr. Burroughs than just transport or information. I received an expanded sense of my own heritage and identity, as well as a larger sense of purpose and, as she would say, my legacy. In writing her biography, the first, but hopefully not the last, one to be written, I feel that my purpose and legacy are inextricably bound to that of Dr. Burroughs. Her sense of justice, truth, and equality permeates every cell in my body; her kindness and generosity push me towards an ever-expanding largeness of spirit. While I will write more books on other subjects, I will continue to hold Dr. Burroughs’s legacy foremost in my mind. I am grateful to possess this biography as a passport into worlds I would never have imagined existed, nor would I have thought I would be welcomed to enter.
I have been asked why I chose South Side Venus as the title of my book. The cover art is one of Dr. Burroughs’s linocut prints, “Black Venus,” which is among my favorites of all of her prints. I had originally intended to use “Black Venus” as the title, along with that print on the cover. However, my media-savvy editor at Northwestern University Press, Jill Lisette Petty, discovered that “Black Venus” had a pejorative history in 19th and early 20th century carnivals in which African-American women were featured in freak shows. Thus, my title was changed to South Side Venus, to sidestep any of this injurious past but to still highlight the loving, powerful, and beautiful spirit exuded by Dr. Burroughs. She was and is an icon of love to all who knew her.
 "Reflections on the Life of an Icon" H3O Art of Life Blog (11/13/20)
 Op cit, "Reflections..." 11/13/20
Please view The H30 Art of Life Show,"Journeying with Margaret", Featuring Dr. MARGARET T.G BURROUGHS and William Oba King. We urge you share this link on your social media platform and your comments with us.