Harlem artist helps battered women get
free reconstructive surgery
It was a frightening
sight last March in the pages of the Daily News: Roshauna Tate's
beautiful features atrociously disfigured by a scar.
Her husband sliced her face open, grabbed the
couple's baby and drowned himself in New York Harbor. Fortunately, a
cop saved the baby's life.
Jeremiah Kyle Drake, haunted by the violence he
witnessed during his childhood, decided he had to do something. The
artist, who teaches theater at Harlem's Riverside Church, contacted
the 29-year-old Staten Island mother of four and took her to see Dr.
Minas Constantinides at New York University.
Constantinides is a participant in the
Virginia-based organization Face to Face, run by the American Academy
of Facial Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery, which provides free
cosmetic surgery for battered women.
Today, Tate is receiving treatments prior to the
operation that will make her recover her glow. Drake said she is doing
well and living in Brooklyn.
Drake learned about Face to Face after he helped
another battered woman get the same procedure.
"The art made it happen," says Drake, 48, in a
commanding baritone and with expressive gestures that attest to his
background: a former Army paratrooper and trained opera singer.
At his apartment in Harlem, he points at one of
his art pieces, eerily similar to Tate after the slashing: an old
Billie Holiday poster with a superimposed scar searing her face from
eye to mouth. "This happens in the African-American community quite
often," he says.
"It's called 'Buck 50' — it's from a Tupac
Shakur song. You slash the person, preferably in the face," he
explains. "It's called like that because it takes 50 or more stitches
to repair the injury".
"Men, in lieu of killing a woman, take away from
them their physical appearance. When you do that, you bring her down,"
he says. "There are women stabbed in the stomach while they are
Drake learned about this common practice among
street gangs when he was attacked by a group of kids in Harlem in 1989
and himself almost got a "Buck 50."
"If you were going to 125th any afternoon, I
guarantee you will see people come by with scars."
One day he decided to make an artistic statement
about it: "Take an icon, a revered image, and put a 'Buck 50' on it
using my staple gun."
That's how his "Slashing of the African-American
Icons" series started. It features figures as respected as Langston
Hughes, Charlie Parker, Malcolm X, Bob Marley and Holiday.
Then he found himself wanting to do more to
raise awareness about this problem. "Art is about making things
happen," he says. So he thought of the next step: "Restoring the
Last February, he took the scarred Billie
Holiday image to Harlem Hospital with a proposal that they start
providing free reconstructive surgery to battered women.
"I thought they were going to think that I'm
crazy, like a lot of people do," he remembers.
But somebody heeded the call.
"I signed on immediately because I think it is a
remarkable thing what he's doing," says Dr. Ferdinand Ofodile, 65, who
has three of Drake's works displayed in his office.
"The pain in the faces of these icons, and the
cry for help that was depicted in these images" moved him, he says.
"And when you know that they started as a reflection on what some
people have gone through themselves, it is very touching."
Ofodile performed free plastic surgery on a girl
named Sharon whose husband splashed lye in her face. "Her skin was
deformed because black skin forms keloid scars [that grows
abnormally]," he says.
Now, the plastic surgeon offers this service
free to every woman in the same situation. "We promised Jeremiah that
we would give him top priority," he says.
But Drake not only wants to keep publicizing the
work of organizations like Face to Face, Harlem Hospital, Safe
Horizons and Women of Greenhope Services, where he also volunteers.
"My goal is to influence Medicaid so that they
provide free reconstructive surgery for women disfigured in these
situations," he says.
Born in Akron, Ohio, and raised in Syracuse, he
was 4 years old when he witnessed his father brutally abusing his
mother. "One time I heard a commotion in the kitchen. My father was
beating my mother in the face. Boom! Boom! And then he goes: 'Give me
a knife! I'm gonna cut this bitch's face!' yelling at me," he
"My father would beat her whether he was sober
or drunk. He was raised that way," he says. "My grandfather brought
him up as a batterer. He always said it's important to beat your woman
to control her. 'You gotta dust her up sometimes,' he would say."
A year later, Drake's mother grabbed her eight
children and ran away.
After high school, Drake joined the 82nd
Airborne Division at Fort Bragg, N.C. "I know how they push your
buttons to make you violent," he says. He protected women in the Army
from other soldiers.
"I've stopped gang rapes," he says. "I told
them, look she's a fellow soldier!"
After his military service he went on to study
classical singing and acting in Los Angeles. In 1989, after living in
Chicago and Atlanta, he moved to New York and soon settled in Harlem.
"It was the first time I was in a community that
was all black. I was like, 'Wow, I am just a person.' I was not just
'the black guy' anymore."
He established himself as an artist here. His
works, displayed at Riverside Church and the Big Apple Jazz Gallery (www.bigapplejazz.com)
, are made of objects found on the streets of Harlem. "If I am in the
Bronx or down in Manhattan and I see something, I won't use it!" he
The fact that his art pieces and community work
are so reminiscent of what he witnessed in that kitchen 40 years ago
doesn't strike him as accidental.
"In a way, I am exorcising the demon," he says.
"And it's healing."
For more information on free cosmetic surgery
programs for battered women, visit
www.facetofacesurgery.org, call Jeremiah Drake at (212) 870-6700,
or Harlem Hospital at (212) 939-8990.
regarding Mr. Drake's art
please call Big Apple Jazz: 212 283-5299
Do you know a New Yorker who makes a difference?
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Originally published on November 22, 2006