Depictions of Slavery in Confederate and Southern States
International Review of African American Art
Just Whistling Dixie
Reckon-Jefferson Davis is turning in his grave, Know Ol' Massa would be
goin' hog wild if he could see how the nigras have taken revenge in a most
blasphemous way. They be commandeering the vaunted symbols of the Confederacy
and turning them to their own purposes. Be taking darky images off confederate
dollars and making paintings out of 'em. Hardly what you'd call dixie doodles.
As for that revered symbol of rebeldom, the Confederate flag, they be recoloring
it with the red, black and green of pan-Africanism. Kinda like Museum of the
Confederacy antimatter, or converse Kara Walker.
The iconoclasts in question, John E. Jones and John Sims, are not a part
of a small revisionist school of art, in fact, before now, they weren't even
aware of the others' work.
John Jones began to scrutinize Confederate currency six
years ago while working at a blueprinting
company in Charleston. After enlarging a Confederate bank note for a customer,
he was intrigued by the magnified picture of slaves picking cotton. So, he began
researching imagery of slavery on Confederate and Reconstruction-era money and
was astonished by the widespread depictions of black workers on these
He has examined 122 bills with engraved illustrations of black people and
has created 80 finely-detailed paintings based on the illustrations in a series
called, "The Color of Money."
Just as surprising as the pervasiveness of black subjects on the
Confederate bills is the stylized beauty of the imagery. No where to be found
are the comic coon caricatures that proliferated in the sheet music and in other
19th century printed media. Instead, the depictions of black field
workers on some the currency recall the dignity of French peasantry in Barbizon
School works such as The Glenaers (1857) by Jean-Francois Millet. And, reminiscent of the
handsome, earring-wearing, African American Bone
Player of William Sidney Mount (1856) is the cotton-picking man in the
jaunty, beribboned hat and hoop earring on a one dollar bill issued by a
buildings and loan association in Columbia, South Carolina where John Jones
John Jones appears to extend the romantization of slavery in his
beautifully rendered paintings of the images on the bills. He explains that
while he tried to "do them without revision, two stories are really being
told" in his work. "The story that the Confederates wanted you to see
is 'the happy salve'," Jones says. His "story," however, is to
admirably portray black folks' "indomitable will to survive" and
"African traditions such as cooking."
Acknowledging that he does create lovely pastoral idylls as background
for his work, the artist says that he feels a strong affinity with the South
Carolina countryside and he enjoys landscape painting.
In preparing the currency series, Jones strove to understand the
Confederate mind. The prevalence of black people on the money, he says,
indicates their significance: "People tend to put on the currency what is
important to them. You don't see us on the money today!" Indeed Africans
were the lifeblood of the people issuing the 'blood money' that, he says, was
designed to promote the plantation economy: "the depictions were a form of
propaganda to show that slavery was not that bad - to show that (enslaved
blacks) were well-fed and relatively well-clothed."
The reality behind the propaganda is something John Jones knows first
hand from his paternal greatgrandmother, a former slave who died at age 109 in
1969 when he was 17. (She still bore the scars from whippings.)
A self-trained artist who demonstrates a meticulous mastery of the oil
medium, Jones has organized his currency-based paintings into a series called The
Color of Money which opened at the Avery Research Center Museum of the
College of Charleston, is accompanied by a full-color, 180 page catalogue, and
is travelling nationally. The color of
Money will be on view in January 2003 at the Rome (NY) Art Center. The
series is a part of a much larger narrative by the artist on the African
American experience. Visit him at: www.colorsofmoney.com.