Goatwater is a column which explores the mystifying, joyous and liberating concept of Carnival through the New York born and raised, Caribbean-American perspective of poet and artist Tiffany Osedra Miller.
How to Redraw a John Crow
Brandon rented a car and drove us from Louisiana to Texas. It was springtime when we arrived in Dallas and still daylight, mid-1990’s. We drove by Dealey Plaza where John F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1963. I had seen Oliver Stone’s film, JFK, and had replayed in my head, many times over, the graphic documentary footage, that Stone included, of Kennedy’s death, as well as Jackie Kennedy’s instinctual reaction to such violence enacted on her husband. I lost sleep over those images as well as other violent images I’d collected in my consciousness, throughout my life. For a time, I even lost faith in humanity. Therefore, I confess that I choose to draw images because I want to control the picture.
How can artists redraw, reconsider or describe disturbing images, without denying
uncomfortable, essential truths concerning the human condition?
My father revealed to me that he had been walking along a highway in the Bronx, when he heard that Kennedy had been shot. I pictured my father, in a state of shock, wearing his marine uniform as cars passed him by. In a lost album, there’s a picture of my brother, when he was a little boy, dressed in an oversized suit, on his way to church. Named after Kennedy, my brother, in the picture, stands on the staircase in our row house in the Bronx, saluting much like John F. Kennedy, Jr. had saluted, at his father’s funeral. Years later, at our own father’s military funeral, two marines ceremoniously presented my brother with a folded American flag. While I never asked my father where he was when he heard that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. or Malcolm X was assassinated, he did, however, mention, in passing, the name, John Crow, or jancro, the Jamaican vulture and symbol of misfortune.
We were on our way, Brandon and I, to an amusement park in Texas. Born in Barbados, Brandon had never been on a rollercoaster and decided to try it. It terrified him so much that he became sick after we got off the ride. We laughed, uneasily, however, after we saw that the cameras had captured a picture of our faces on our way down the steep track into the abyss. My face – sadistic and amused. His – twisted with absolute horror.
After the rollercoaster, we encountered a caricature artist. Expertly rendered portraits of celebrities and passerby surrounded him. He offered to create our caricatures. So we – Brandon and I – sat beside each other, like Heckle and Jeckle, while he drew us. When we saw the end result, my eyes never looked wider. Brandon’s lips never looked bigger. We both never appeared blacker, more buffoonish, savage, unintelligent as we were reduced from human beings into two dopey looking characters of the Jim Crow south.
Is this how you see us?
Is this what we look like?
Is this how we see ourselves?
I felt bamboozled, speechless, ashamed.
But isn’t a caricature an exaggeration?
Isn’t a stereotype nothing more
than a collection of embellishments
and superficial beliefs?
As mild-mannered as the artist initially came across, I couldn’t shake the contempt and violence emanating from the picture. The artist, attempted to tamp down his defensiveness at our disillusionment, by reassuring us we didn’t have to purchase the caricature. We wanted nothing to do with the picture and walked away. I wish we would have purchased the picture, as the artist probably added it to his portfolio.
Jim Crow was the term used to symbolize legal acts of discrimination against Black- Americans, during Reconstruction and well into the 20th century. The name evokes images of Colored Only signs and harrowing photos of picnickers, babies in tow, enjoying the lynchings of black men. John Crow is a name used in Jamaica to describe an ugly, disgraceful human being or someone associated with evil.
I am alone with a shopkeeper in a tiny, used bookstore in London. I notice the name of the most treasured mystery writer of my youth, Agatha Christie, along the edge of a paperbound book. I enjoyed the escapades of her signature character, the Belgian – with the egg-shaped head, as she described him – Monsieur Hercule Poirot. I read, Murder on the Orient Express in my 6th grade English class, where we learned the principles of storytelling. I couldn’t wait to discuss our assigned readings and posit theories about Whodunit. I found my favorite book by Christie, on my parent’s bookshelf. Tattered, it was titled, And Then There Were None, which featured a cover illustration depicting six of ten figurines, arranged in a semi-circle, each wearing a feather in a headband. In the story, whenever there was a murder, one of the figurines disappeared. I found another version of the book called, Ten Little Indians. On its cover, a brutal illustration of an Indigenous-American, an axe at their neck.
At the bookstore in London, though I had long since outgrown Christie’s books, I nearly cried out and ran amuck, as I held in my hand a 1939 edition of the most beloved novel of my adolescence, with its original title, Ten Little Niggers. I felt betrayed. The cover featured an illustration of ten, black figurines with large, white lips. I wanted to buy the book to get it off of the shelf but I couldn’t bring myself to purchase it from the white shopkeeper.
Drawing is an emotional and spiritual collaboration between artist and subject. Histories and biases. An artist draws what they see, feel and sense. The capacity to desecrate, dehumanize and even desensitize, via a drawing, often unravels me. The power of imagery to offend, as in the symbols of John Crow or Jim Crow, persists. Imagery can, however, uplift. An artist has the right to draw whatever and however they like, as creativity tirelessly provides us with opportunities to transcend destructive imagery. With the spirit of hope intrinsic to acts of creation, we must wrest control of our images, our personal and cultural mythologies, while surrendering to Greater Muses.