ChickenBones: A Journal

for  Literary & Artistic African-American  Themes


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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 Encyclopaedia Brittanica, 1798) good:



  Confederate Money: The Art of John W. Jones

 of  John Jones's Confederate Currency


Right on the Money: John Jones' Visual Narratives

Exhibition Review by Tony Bolden  


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 Encyclopaedia Brittanica, 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 Gretchin Barbatsis have discussed, but also America's steadfast insistence on narrowly conceptualizing the nation's culture in Eurocentric 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?

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John W. Jones--born May 11, 1950 in Columbia, S.C. Jones--has been a freelance artist and illustrator for more than 20 years. His former clients include Time Life Books, IBM, Westinghouse, Rubbermaid, NASA, Gadded Space and Flight Center, and the U.S. Postal Service. Jones explores life through art. This multi-talented artist uses oils, acrylics and watercolors for his painting. Striving for detail in light and reflection, he meticulously draws each painting first, then layers it with color, resulting in very realistic interpretations of everyday life and landscapes, as well as historical insights into our past.

Jones, who graduated from high school in 1968 and self-taught, has been drawing since early childhood. Drafted into the U.S. Army in 1970, Jones served in the Vietnam War, where he also took illustration classes in military School.

*   *   *   *   *'s 25 Best Selling Books



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#19 - John Oliver Killens: A Life of Black Literary Activism by Keith Gilyard

#20 - Alain L. Locke: The Biography of a Philosopher by Leonard Harris

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Blacks in Hispanic Literature: Critical Essays

Edited by Miriam DeCosta-Willis 

Blacks in Hispanic Literature is a collection of fourteen essays by scholars and creative writers from Africa and the Americas. Called one of two significant critical works on Afro-Hispanic literature to appear in the late 1970s, it includes the pioneering studies of Carter G. Woodson and Valaurez B. Spratlin, published in the 1930s, as well as the essays of scholars whose interpretations were shaped by the Black aesthetic. The early essays, primarily of the Black-as-subject in Spanish medieval and Golden Age literature, provide an historical context for understanding 20th-century creative works by African-descended, Hispanophone writers, such as Cuban Nicolás Guillén and Ecuadorean poet, novelist, and scholar Adalberto Ortiz, whose essay analyzes the significance of Negritude in Latin America. This collaborative text set the tone for later conferences in which writers and scholars worked together to promote, disseminate, and critique the literature of Spanish-speaking people of African descent. . . . Cited by a literary critic in 2004 as "the seminal study in the field of Afro-Hispanic Literature . . . on which most scholars in the field 'cut their teeth'."

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Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America

By Melissa V. Harris-Perry

According to the author, this society has historically exerted considerable pressure on black females to fit into one of a handful of stereotypes, primarily, the Mammy, the Matriarch or the Jezebel.  The selfless Mammy’s behavior is marked by a slavish devotion to white folks’ domestic concerns, often at the expense of those of her own family’s needs. By contrast, the relatively-hedonistic Jezebel is a sexually-insatiable temptress. And the Matriarch is generally thought of as an emasculating figure who denigrates black men, ala the characters Sapphire and Aunt Esther on the television shows Amos and Andy and Sanford and Son, respectively.     

Professor Perry points out how the propagation of these harmful myths have served the mainstream culture well. For instance, the Mammy suggests that it is almost second nature for black females to feel a maternal instinct towards Caucasian babies.

As for the source of the Jezebel, black women had no control over their own bodies during slavery given that they were being auctioned off and bred to maximize profits. Nonetheless, it was in the interest of plantation owners to propagate the lie that sisters were sluts inclined to mate indiscriminately.

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The White Masters of the World

From The World and Africa, 1965

By W. E. B. Du Bois

W. E. B. Du Bois’ Arraignment and Indictment of White Civilization (Fletcher)

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Ancient African Nations

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Negro Digest / Black World

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The Death of Emmett Till by Bob Dylan  The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll  Only a Pawn in Their Game

Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson Thanks America for Slavery / George Jackson  / Hurricane Carter

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The Journal of Negro History issues at Project Gutenberg

The Haitian Declaration of Independence 1804  / January 1, 1804 -- The Founding of Haiti 

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update March 2012




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Related files:    Confederate Money: The Art of John W. Jones  Abbe Raynal on Black Leadership  Depictions of Slavery    Review of Exhibition   Snapshots of the Old South