Street artist and muralist GAIA just finished a new tribute in Lexington, Kentucky with the PRHBTN gallery focused on a local colorful character named James Herndon, aka “Sweet Evening Breeze.”
As narratives about queer culture continue to emerge and evolve, we are seeing how enriched community life has been over generations because of the contributions socially and anthropologically by people who appear all along the spectrum of gender identity.
Consulting images from the Faulkner Morgan Archive, Gaia tells us that he learned a great deal about Herndon’s life (1892-1983) as well. “Sweet Evening Breeze was an orderly at Good Samaritan Hospital and was an icon in Lexington and the local drag scene,” he says. Additional research may lead you to also appreciate that his/her identity was celebrated by many otherwise conservative neighbors, perhaps due to the minority of people in the Lexington community who were like “Sweets”, or, it is inferred in some storytelling, he/she traveled in some influential social and political circles.
From an entry in the NKAA (Notable Kentucky African Americans Database), writer Marcia Rapchak reports, “Originally from Scott County, KY, Herndon moved to Lexington as a child and then was abandoned at Good Samaritan Hospital by his uncle after he suffered an eye injury. After growing up in the hospital, he worked as an orderly for over forty years.”
“He went to church regularly and loved church music. He enjoyed playing the piano, dressing up in women’s clothes and makeup, and entertaining at his house on Prall Street, which he shared with his uncle Andrew Smith in 1920, according to the U.S. Federal Census. The last years of his life were spent at Homestead Nursing Center, and he is buried at Lexington Cemetery.”
Seeing this new mural give voice to a community that has often been overlooked or deliberately erased from history, one wonders how many other stories there are which remain untold. Once mercilessly hounded by police officers and subjected to derision and violence by good Christian leaders and rank-and-file church members, many people like Sweet Summer Breeze spent their entire lives haunted and hunted in their own communities. These stories need to be openly told as well since shame for past transgressions and ignorance has yet to be fully and rightly placed in many communities, and responsibility has not been accepted for the suffering caused, the dreams crushed, denied.
As has been the case over the last decade or so, Gaia will very likely bring more unheralded stories and others to the street – further widening the collective discussion of passersby.