Hands are a significant symbol throughout art and literature. Clenched fists symbolize strength, power and control. Gripping hands can show possessiveness, ownership and even desire. The erotic nature of tactile sensation is in the hands. Cupped hands can symbolize giving. The surface character of hands can show hard labor.
This sculpture is a visual diagram of the racial identity of 4 generations of my family (ending with my father's generation) going back to James Madison's plantation, Montpelier. In examining US Census documents, I found that my ancestors would change their racial identify over years covering, Emancipation, Reconstruction, and the Jim Crow era. For example, they would identify as Mulatto in one year, Black 10 years later and White after that. If that was the case, I would conclude that they were Mulatto. The color of the hands corresponds with my conclusion of the racial identity for each individual, in an effort to get a visual picture of how our African ancestry was eliminated from our family history. The reverse side of the hands symbolize the tabbaco leaf, which is what was grown and harvested by the enslaved people at Montpelier.
The masters of the enslaved people, ultimately had control over their identity and family composition. Enslaved people were traded or given as dowry. Families were split apart. Often enslaved persons were given the master's surname. The sexual interaction of white masters with female slaves was a component of the economy of slavery and the brutality that existed within the system. Generations of children of this miscegenation produced enslaved children, thereby increasing the master’s property. But this also resulted in enslaved persons that were mulatto or white, which led to the phenomenon of “passing”, as white.
* click the image for a link to a review in the New Haven Independent by Brian Slattery, and an interesting observation he made about this work.
All images copyright Jocelyn Braxton Armstrong