Recovering Bélizaire and Why We Must Always Remember.
In 1828, a six-year-old mixed-race child and his mother were sold to a family in Louisiana. His name was Bélizaire. Very little is known about his life, but in the 28 years that he served the Frey family, he was a companion to the patriarch and possibly a caretaker for the children of the family, which would explain why he was included in a family portrait at the age of 15.
When the father of the family passed away in 1856, Bélizaire was sold to a nearby plantation and that is where the historical record of Bélizaire runs cold and for us, his story comes to an end. But the painting itself fades away into obscurity until the 1970s, when it was donated by descendants of the Frey family to the New Orleans Museum of Art. At his point in history, although the portrait was in poor shape, there is evidence that the painting had been altered, because there is a spectral figure where Bélizaire’s form had resided. It is obvious that another person in the portrait had been concealed, covered with darker shades, and made to blend into a darkened background.
The New Orleans Museum of Art took little interest in the portrait or the concealed figure and stored it away for 32 years. It was later auctioned to a private collector, who had the portrait restored, allowing the visage of Bélizaire to see the light of day.
It wasn’t until much later, well into the 21st century, that an African American collector decided to acquire the piece and dig into the identity of the enslaved child. Now, the portrait of Bélizaire and the Frey children resides in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
After reading this brief synopsis, it probably begs the question, “Why does any of this matter?”
It matters because the few breadcrumbs that we have been left to even alert us that he had ever lived is demonstrative of this country’s need to erase the scars that racism has left on our collective backs.
Bélizaire was a mixed-race child, whose mother’s name is not given. Her name dissolved into history and forgotten. But that little bit of information can lead one to deduce that Bélizaire was the product of rape, a commodified byproduct of violence against a black woman, misogynoir in its infancy.