Depictions of Slavery in Confederate and Southern States
With dynamic color and innovative, expansive content, John W. Jones' wonderful acrylic paintings “Quietly” subverts the original intent and restrictive form of the racist white Southern Confederate paper money makers through his art, using Africa’s powerful celebratory rite as a strong spiritual balancing force. He counters, inverts and transforms the painful stereotyped images of slavery as depicted on this these southern currencies from humiliating ones, into creative visual narratives, expanding our vision of consciousness, like the blues, so beautifully does with our music.Reminding all of us – again… Through the arts, of our continuing struggle for freedom against amnesia and the need to strengthen that link of memory, that connecting line, to all our ancestors to all those living inside or outside of the continent of Africa.
Tom Feelings, Artist, Art Professor and author of The Middle Passage, White Ships Black Cargo
Right on the Money: John Jones’ Visual Narratives
When I realized that slave masters had engraved black faces on their currency, I immediately thought about the couplet that slaves used to recite, presumably when the masters weren’t around: “Ought’s a ought, figger’s a figger / All for the white man, none for the nigger.” All of which suggests, of course, that contrary to the benevolent, great-big-family arrangement that southerners (mis)represented, the vast majority of the slaves were well aware of their exploitation. Though denied formal literacy, slaves proved to be quite adept at reading — and exposing — the cryptic signs that narrated the contradictions of plantation life. In a word, the poem inscribes the entire history of American slavery.
And yet, as W.E.B. DuBois pointed out, a mere twenty-five per cent of the population owned roughly seventy-five per cent of the slaves. How, then, as Malcom X once asked, could so few white people control so many black people? How, in other words, could the planters induce the majority of white people to support their system when that meant, quite literally, competing with somebody who worked for free? On a superficial level, at least, such a proposal defies all logic: There were only so many overseer jobs available, and everybody couldn’t buy slaves and raise the funds to buy their own land or become a small merchant. Many therefore lived in abject poverty — in material conditions that were worse, in fact, than some of the slaves. So why couldn’t they see that they were getting played? The ideology of race, pure and simple. The planters used it as a wedge to separate, and thereby antagonize, the two segments of the working class, so that they could more easily horde the whole bag of money. And what better way to promote white supremacy than to put the black face, as John Jones puts it, right on the money?
Like all forms of capitalist ideology (and I’m not referring here to an established political philosophy, but rather a series of assumptions and/or (mis)representations that people refuse to question), the black-face bank notes justify exploitation, saying, in effect, that it’s natural for Africans to be slaves, since we all know they’re not really humans… Besides, we treat our nigras (that’s the official name given in the Encyclopedia Britannica, 1798) good: See how happy they are! Such myopia, as black philosopher Charles Mills has pointed out, is indicative of the kind of misinterpretation that’s endemic to white supremacy.
But if Confederate bank notes inscribe the entire history of slavery in the U.S., then John Jones’ visual narratives not only expose its contradictions; they illustrate the very process in which racist ideology was constructed. Like a skilled blues virtuoso, Jones riffs on the black-face images, repeating them in bold colors strategically selected to suggest moods and/or tones. Which is to say, there’s an antiphonal relationship between the bank notes and Jones’ artwork. Oftentimes, as in “Slave Picking Corn,” Jones lends vitality to the slaves by displacing the black caricature with realistic images of blackness: These are faces we actually see in our communities — fathers, uncles, cousins, brothers. At the same time, the ever-present smile that we see highlights the absurdity of the narrative that the bank notes try to tell. “Slave in Fancy Clothes” and “Slave Couple” both (mis)represent slave-life as luxurious; and again, Jones’ brilliant artwork points up the stark contradiction in terms (slave/luxury).
Sometimes Jones’ riffing is sweet and subtle. Take for instance “Slave Carrying Cotton,” which appears on the cover of the catalog. On the bank note, the slave seems to be blissfully unaware of economic exploitation. But in Jones’ revision, the worker’s gaze is no longer directed away from the viewer: She’s looking dead at us, and she is not happy. Her rough-and-tumble tough mood (which reminds me of Sojourner Truth) and the blue clothes that she wears suggest the philosophical response that would produce such blues women as Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith who didn’t take no mess (Bessie actually chased the Klan away from her tent). On other occasions, though, Jones’ experimental revisions can be stunning. In “Slave Profits,” Jones revises a bank note wherein Moneta, the Roman goddess of prosperity, has been engraved. While slaves work peacefully in the background, the goddess sits, smiling amidst bags of golden coins. But when Jones represents the goddess in “Slave Profits,” he paints her as a woman of color, which not only symbolizes the sexual and economic exploitation that Al Fraser and Gretchen Barbatsis have discussed, but also America’s steadfast insistence on narrowly conceptualizing the nation’s culture in Euro centric terms. In other words, Jones calls attention to the creolized nature of American culture by virtue of the many contributions made by African Americans, Latinos, and Native Americans.
Jones’ work, then, challenges us to re-examine the past. Just as blues musicians often confronted and exposed the contradictions of the mistreaters in black communities, so Jones uses a blues aesthetic to recast the slavers’ ideology in a communal (slave) song narrated visually. As such, Jones emerges as a secular priest, testifying to the hard-core realities of this heretofore invisible black past: Can I get a witness?
The Slave and Money's Color
Slavery, the horrific system
of enslaving "hue-manity", is brought to light in a vivid historical
depiction in a new book entitled
"Confederate Currency- The Color of Money".
The uniqueness of this 176 page artistic masterpiece is that it reflects
the tragic saga of the African-Americans and their plight through this hellish injustice by
artist John W. Jones, himself an African-American.
The book, which is published by New
Directions Publishing, Inc. showcases the works of Mr.
Jones' which was originally an
exhibition of his works shown at the
College of Charleston's Avery Research
Center for African-American History & Culture in Charleston, South
Carolina, in February 2001.
Edited by Dr. Gretchen Barbatsis, with a foreword by Avery's curator Curtis Franks, and stellar contributions by Dr.
Wilmot A. Fraser, Donald West, Jack McCray, and Richard Doty,
this book takes on prolific importance by effectively demonstrating the
consolidated strengths of the African-Americans'
perseverance, dignities and enduring tenacities during this turbulent whirlwind
of "hue-man bondage and frightful existence.
Mr. Jones' bold approach and artistic representations recreating the scenes of Black
people pictured on the various types of paper.
Confederate currency is a historically visual walk back in time for any
and everyone to see what it must have been like to be a slave in the South. The scenes are explosive to the mind's eye.
These images of slavery in Confederate and
Southern states currency as painted and depicted by Mr. Jones' brings to life a part of American history many people
today may not know anything about factually, or may secretly tend to deny
existed for whatever reason(s).
Noted historian Dr. Fraser in
his contribution to the book, "Studying and Painting "Blood Money" In the New Millennium" cites, and very correctly,
the skills and sensitive visions of Mr. Jones' artistic powers of observation,
draftsmanship and colorful expression, and how they became crucial in extracting
from the dehumanized engravings the essential humanity of their subject matter.
After reading, few could argue with Dr.
Fraser's astute observations.
The subject of slavery, no matter how "touchy" it may be viewed, is a
terrible and ugly blot on the soul of America's historical legacy, and that's
something n one can deny. But it's
still history all the same, complete with the bitterness, both White and Black.
It can't and won't be denied.
I find particularly interesting and timely the contribution "Slavery
- A Global Perspective" by Professor
Donald West. He chronologically
details the history of slavery, which gives the reader of this book a background
of slavery's rise and demise in the Western Hemisphere and the Americas.
When watching the various depictions of Mr.
Jones in "The Color of Money", one can see that he's telling a
definitive and all engrossing story at the same time. Slavery was hell, and it wasn't some glorious camp picnic
jubilee for the enslaved African. It
was torturously brutal and demeaning to the imprisoned colored brothers and
sisters of hue-manity's spirits and souls.
The unquestioned skill of Mr. Jones as an illustrator and painter
resonates throughout the poignant scenes brought to educational light and
reflectional life. American
Confederate and Southern history is exposed in this here-to-fore neglected
medium called money. Black History
apparently is everywhere - even in and on the currency of the Confederacy and
Like a twisted love theme gone very bad,
"Confederate Currency - The Color of Money" says more about
America than what many of its inhabitants care to admit.
Maybe that's why the exhibit
Currency: The Color of Money, Depictions of Slavery In Confederate and Southern
is a smashing success as it travels the country on display in a various art
museums and venues.
The artwork is strikingly crisp and draws the viewer into the spirit of
the laborers cemented in the back-breaking rituals of Southern plantation life
and work. Mr.
Jones started these paintings more than four years ago after having enlarged
a Confederate bank note for a customer at blueprint shop where he once worked.
That's where it started. After
much research and inspiration, Mr. Jones
realized the important history behind the
vignettes of Blacks on Confederate and Southern money.
Mr. Jones' awesome dedication
and vision in producing these mid-19th century visual artistic
statements say more to the enlightened masses searching for truth about the
miseries of man's "inhue-manities" to man. This book tells what Mr. Jones reveals about the South.
Mr. Jones, in a telephone
conversation with me last week from his studio in Columbia, South Carolina, told
me that he felt that "The Subject of Blacks and slavery was very intriguing, and I
thought that it was something that needed to be illuminated, especially about
how they (Southerners) felt about us."
Another informational highlight of "The
Color of Money" is numismatist
Richard Doty's splendid and detailed breakdown of the historical origin of
the overview of currency in America and not just the South.
He insightfully gives the reader a full panoramic history of money and
its relationship to people of color.
Journalist Jack McCray, in his
contribution "A Look Through The
Window of America's Soul", espouses in his view that the artist seeks to express
the universal in the particular, elevate the mundane and ordinary to elegance,
and seek the sublime in the ridiculous, which the art of painting is eminently
suitable to demonstrate.
If that were the accepted norm for the average viewer of Mr.
Jones' current artistic achievements, then "The
Color of Money" as a book, in conjunction with the exhibition, has
reached a pinnacle of unquestioned symbolic excellence because its essence
speaks of informing and teaching the general public about the authentic truths
of slavery in America.
This point was further clarified by Mr. Jones is our interview when he
said, "I wanted to shed some light
on that very difficult and irrefutable fact,
and what the institution of
slavery and cotton meant to the states. I
painted the scenes in the book to show people, especially young people what
slavery was about."
I highly recommend that you get a copy of Mr. Jones' book. It should be a "visual" must read. You and your family will receive an education about Americana you'll need to know and learn more about. If one is ignorant of his or her past, he or she will be ignorant of his or her future. "Knowledge is power." Always remember that, and for today, that's "As I See It."
I first heard of
John W. Jones while listening to the radio in my car. While tuned to NPR on my
lunch hour, I heard Mr. Jones speak about his life, his paintings, and his
various jobs in the graphic arts field. This peaked my interest since I have a
fine arts background and work in the same field. But what he said next was most
fascinating to me. He told the listening audience that while enlarging currency
to reproduce for a customer at a blueprint shop where he worked, he discovered
images of slaves depicted on confederate money. As he told his story, I felt as
if I was making the discovery as well.
This really opened
the door to further questions and I began discussing this topic with my peers.
Not only was I curious about the historical aspect of these images, but on a
higher level, I am interested in the notion that Mr. Jones chose to immortalize
these monochromatic scenes from currency onto a colorfully painted canvas. Since
I am a painter, I was able to appreciate his palate, technique, technical
ability, form, and lighting. It is of further interest that the painting medium
was used as a form of expression, of beauty, and allows those who frequent art
institutions the opportunity to not only view a work of art, but also discover
layers of meaning represented by the reproduction. These paintings are cerebral
in nature, because I do not feel the backbreaking and brutal emotional trauma
associated with being enslaved. Instead, I feel a sense of maudlin, tap-dancing
showmanship, as if these men and women depicted are part of a theatrical,
Technicolor presentation. Because of the way they are portrayed, as if slavery
is a superficial pleasure to serve, these images invite me to look beyond the
cleverly painted picture. In a Post-Modern art context, these paintings are not
strictly narrative, but seem to engage the viewer on many levels and most
certainly provoke you to confront them. They seem fanciful and vividly
men and women are smiling and heartily heaving bales of cotton onto their strong
shoulders. However, the "pretty picture" you see on the surface
reveals something much more complex and thought provoking underneath.
And at that moment, when one begins the realization that there is
something beyond the image and associates it with the piece of currency shown
beside the painting, one feels a sense of shocking discovery. And, upon further
internal dialogue, this discovery and quest for meaning guides the viewer to a
subtle yet powerful conclusion. One immediately derives an emotional jolt of
injustice and inhumanity, and the appalling realization that it was acceptable
to portray enslaved human beings as part of the Confederate economy.
I feel that this
topic is a perfect venue for an art history course, and/or should be part of any
history curriculum concerning slavery, the south, and African-American heritage.
The catalog that accompanies this body of work shows how prolific Mr.
Jones is, as page after page of paintings and currency details are shown.
If you do not live in an area to where this show will travel, I highly
recommend this catalog.
I wish to thank Mr. Jones for educating me about a most important topic,
through the medium of painting. His brilliant presentation shows us that
historical data and the stories therein may appear in print not by word alone,
but some of the most excellent discoveries are found by merely opening one's