How far back does a family’s memory go? For some, realizing it only extends as few as three generations can be painful. The legacies of slavery, genocides, and forced migrations have rendered family lore—and any records of it—all but lost. Last year, Los Angeles–based artist Rosalyn Myles thought of all this when she came across an online project for Black women to discuss their lineage. As part of the initiative, respondents were asked to complete the following sentence: “I am the daughter of ________, who is the daughter of ________, who is the daughter of ________.” Myles realized she could fill in the first two blanks—Bessie Drawhorn Myles and Daisy Lee Hightower, respectively—but she had never learned the name of Daisy’s mother.
“I realized I didn’t know my great-grandmother’s name,” Myles, who is in her late 50s, said in a recent interview. “I called my mother and asked, ‘Hey, what was your grandmother’s name?’ She didn’t know, and I was really shocked. It was an awkward moment for her, and I could tell she felt invaded.”
Myles’s quest to discover her great-grandmother’s name ended up leading her to learn more about her grandmother. It serves as the impetus for her new exhibition, titled “Daisy Hightower: An Installation by Rosalyn Myles,” which focuses on the artist’s grandmother and is on view at Craft Contemporary in Los Angeles through May 8. For the show, Myles has constructed a tablecloth from textiles of various eras to create a timeline of sorts of her grandmother’s life, filling in the gaps with events of own Myles’s invention.
“Our mission here at the museum is really looking at materials as sort of conveyors of narratives and histories,” said Holly Jerger, the exhibition’s curator. “Roz started talking about using various fabrics to construct this tablecloth as a way to mark her grandmother’s life and [to explore] the difficulties for Black people in finding out their family histories here in the United States, because so little was recorded. So many people have a relationship with tablecloths, and she’s using that to create what is ultimately a very expansive history of the experience of Black Americans through the very personal lens of her own grandmother’s story.”
Hightower died in 1980 at 76, and Bessie Myles is now 95. In that initial phone call, Bessie told her daughter that it was not uncommon for her generation, born amid the Great Migration and just two generations removed from the end of slavery, to have known few details about their grandparents’ generation. So Myles reached out to Yolanda Hester, the oral history project director at UCLA’s Arthur Ashe Legacy Fund, to learn how to do further research that would lead her down the path of further knowledge.
Myles examined censuses for Henderson County in northeastern Texas from this era, which spans the 1890s, the 1900s, and the 1910s. In Henderson, population 19,500, 24 percent of which is estimated to have been Black, the family were likely sharecroppers growing cotton and sweet potatoes; some members might have worked in lumber mills or on railroad construction. But these records were of little help, since Myles was unable to locate a full birth certificate that would include Hightower’s mother’s name.
“She was born in 1904, so I’m not talking a million years ago,” Myles said. “When you follow a white American’s family line, it’ll typically go and go and go, but typically in Black America it did not. It’s very difficult for Blacks in the South with any connection to slavery. In the late 1800s, it was more about you being someone’s property than it was about you being a person.”
Myles was committed to learning more, however, and so she took a deep dive into Hightower’s own life story, hoping that it might lead to uncovering her great-grandmother’s name. Drawing on what her mother had told her and what little she already knew about Hightower, Myles, who was 19 when Hightower passed away, slowly began to uncover just how fascinating and radical a life her grandmother had lived. The murky details of the family history were simply a product of their struggles during the Great Depression, which no one wanted to relive. Over the years, whenever Myles asked her mother about her life, she was often “cagey and didn’t want to talk about it,” and when she started this project, Bessie was initially reticent to talk again. Shortly afterward, Bessie called back and spoke about her life in detail for about three hours.
Myles had known the broad strokes of what struggles her grandmother faced as a Black woman from the South during the 20th century, but it was only in piecing together the specifics of the life she lived that Daisy Hightower’s life story became more concrete.
Here is what Myles has been able to piece together so far: Hightower attended school only through the 8th grade, but taught herself Latin later in life and continued her education through correspondence classes. She started her family in the 1920s, and they survived the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927. Daisy escaped a bad marriage, and later moved to New Orleans and worked various jobs there. She met George Head and remarried, and then eventually moved to Nevada, where Head, a sergeant in the U.S. Army, had secured a job at the Nevada Test Site, the place where nuclear devices were tested beginning in 1951. The couple purchased two additional homes to rent out to other Black families who were working at the test site, which was segregated. Hightower and her husband lost those homes as part of eminent domain during the building of Las Vegas. Both likely died of cancers related to their proximity to the radiation from the test site.
“What really blew my mind about my grandmother was that she did what she needed to do to get by—that’s what this is about,” Myles said.
As an artist, Myles has long been fascinated with textiles, and she felt that this could be the best way for her to honor her grandmother’s life. “I work with fabric a lot in my practice, with ‘women’s work,’” she said. “I’m very interested in women’s labor and how we contribute, and in how craft—it’s changing now—has been taken for granted.” She decided that the material, in the form of a tablecloth, would serve as an apt metaphor to narrate the timeline of Daisy Hightower’s life. She wanted to “take the tablecloth through the different periods of my grandmother’s life,” she said. “It’s in an ethereal, dream state—it’s not literal.”
Jerger said, “History is memory, and memory is a fluid thing. Every time you look back on something, you’re not just looking back on it, but you’re looking back on it from that point in your life that you’re in. And that’s always changing, too.”
Myles sourced the materials from fabric shops in Downtown Los Angeles, Jet Rag on La Brea Avenue, flea markets, and her own collection. The first cloth, an intricate cream-colored lace, is from the late 1800s and is followed by a plain white cotton strip from the early 1900s. As the fabrics progress from the turn of the century on to the ’30s and through the ’80s, they become more fabulous: a strip of bright yellow, multiple silk florals, ending with a shiny organza in a rich chocolate color, to commemorate Las Vegas, the city where she died. The table it sits on also has varied legs for support that are also meant to be era-appropriate. Half a chair sits behind the table. Taken as a whole, Myles said, “it speaks to me of her.”
In order to approximate the life lived by Daisy Hightower, Myles organically began to map a timeline onto the wall of her studio, more as an organizational tool than anything else. Archival images dating back to 1850 lead into newer family photos. All of these pictures were annotated with Myles’s own notes on yellow Post-Its: “Born 1904 Henderson County? Carson County?”; “Worked in Roadhouses cooking for Men.” To that she’s added important historical markers, such as ones denoting the Spanish Flu epidemic and the Tulsa Race Massacre, and screenshots of Google Image searches for contemporaneous textiles. Myles didn’t initially think of it as an artwork, but Jerger insisted that it be included in the exhibition.
During the course of her research, Myles never recovered name of her great-grandmother, but this process has helped the artist understand her family’s lineage for posterity. She said, “The piece is this floating table telling this story and just evoking this incredible feeling of nostalgia, but also of loss and disorientation. Disorientation—I think, that’s also a part of it.”