Most believe slavery ended with the Civil War and never question this fact. But Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Douglas A. Blackmon in his 2009 book Slavery by Another Name argues that the systematic arrest, imprisonment, and forced labor of black men for profit, which lasted long after the Civil War, was a direct continuation of slavery, simply under another name. His book eventually became a PBS documentary directed by Sam Pollard, as well as an art exhibit featuring work by Georgia artist Robert Claiborne Morris. As part of the National Black Arts Festival, all three men will participate in a panel discussion about their work. We caught up with Morris to discuss the upcoming panel and exhibition of his work.
The thrust of the book, the documentary, and your exhibit is that slavery didn't just end with the Emancipation Proclamation but actually continued until much later, as late as 1942.
It first reached my consciousness when my friend and former colleague Douglas Blackmon sent me a proof of his book. I knew he'd been working on it for about 10 years. ... He worked avidly and traveled the country finding the statistics, facts, and documents to prove that there was a systematic effort in the South after the Civil War to re-enslave African-Americans. It was the buying and selling of human beings through a process that included arresting folks up off the street, accusing them of crimes all at once in a group, and then selling them off to corporate interests, whether it was steel mills in Birmingham or a brick company in Atlanta or large agricultural interests throughout the South. Everyone involved in this process along the line was making money. What was truly a landmark was when Doug was able to show how many hundreds of thousands of men were caught inside the system and how much money exchanged hands. It really was a form of post-Emancipation slavery.
How did you decide to create works of art based about it? It must have been a daunting task to turn such a painful period into art.
I felt a calling after reading the book. I wanted to make it make sense for myself intellectually and hopefully bring it in a visual way to people who may not be willing or able to read a long book about the subject. Included in the mixed-media pieces are shackles from slavery, pins from old slave ships' artifacts I found throughout the rural South, up and down the Savannah River that friends helped me find at low tide. One of the pieces is constructed out of burlap and a large old industrial bellows, the same kind that would have been used to keep coal fires burning in industrial plants. These men would have been shackled to these fires for however many hours they could work a day without passing out. The bellows is repositioned into appearing as a mask in the piece. That's how a lot of these materials are repositioned. What I enjoyed most about the project was finding a way to employ actual artifacts that had the texture and the patina of that world still on them and incorporating them into the mixed-media works.
You're a white artist and Blackmon is a white historian. Did you ever get any strong negative reactions from people in terms of being white men examining this history or using these artifacts in your art?
I've spoken to literally thousands of people during the four different exhibitions leading up to this one, and I'm really looking forward to the one in Atlanta opening Thursday. That has been a great source of interest and appreciation: White Americans and African-Americans both see a white man not only interested but fully engaged with this history. When people learn a little more about my personal and family history it makes even more sense because I am the descendant of slave owners. It has haunted our family history for generations. We've dealt with it in different ways. It's a way for me as an artist to engage not only this nation's history but my own personal and family history.