Hello everyone! As you may recall, my last two posts are ones regarding Eastman Johnson and three of his works (A Ride for Liberty — Fugitive Slaves, Negro Life at the South, and The Lord is My Shepherd). Today, I will be revisiting Johnson and his works, but with a different twist to it. Throughout the entirety of my blog, a lot of my posts had to do with the theme of perspective and viewpoints. What I want to do today is to incorporate Johnson and his three works in with the theme of perspective.
Ever since Johnson has painted his collection of slavery-based works, there has been debate about whether Johnson’s purpose behind creating those paintings were to contribute to or work against slavery. As it is usual for people in this time and age to understand and argue for the reasons that Johnson might have painted his paintings to work against and discourage slavery, I will take upon myself to take up a different stance and argue why Johnson might have painted his paintings to support slavery.
Johnson’s A Ride for Liberty — Fugitive Slaves
Although most viewers will see Johnson’s A Ride for Liberty — Fugitive Slaves as a work created to depict the long, dark passage that slaves bust take in order to escape slavery, it is not entirely impossible that Johnson might have painted A Ride for Liberty — Fugitive Slaves in order to depict the “long, dark passage” as something along the likes of a rite of passage: the slave family has the ability to escape from enslavement and enter society as a free person because they were slaves. Had they not been slaves, they would not have been able to have this rite. This snapshot that Johnson captured, this thrilling journey, this exhilarating adventure is not something that just anyone can experience — it is a special seat reserved for a slave.
Johnson’s Negro Life at the South
While it is not hard for many to argue that this painting undoubtedly depicts the cruel living conditions that slaves are forced to live in, it is also arguable that the slaves in the picture are enjoying themselves. Through the second story of the building, a mother can be seen spending time with her toddler of a son, just staring off into the horizon. Right below them is a couple, seemingly chatting with each other over a table. Towards their right is a child standing next to and observing the old man on his right as the man plays his banjo. In front of the child-grandpa duo is a mother playing with her two daughters. The big question here is this: If slavery is such a horrendous practice, why do the slaves seem like they are enjoying themselves?
Johnson’s The Lord is My Shepherd
In this painting, Johnson has illustrated a colored an reading a book. Although it is hard to see in this image, it has been established and agreed upon by bodies of scholarship that the man is reading the Bible. Backwards. That’s right, he’s reading the book backwards. Where’s the good in have a free man who can’t even read a book? The man would not be any different when he is free than when he was a slave — he still remains stupid and dependent upon others to get through his daily life. Even something as simple as reading a book is too hard of a task for him.
Although there are many audience members out there who might agree with each other and say that Johnson slavery-related works were born into this world as something to help fight against the practice of slavery, it is clear what Johnson’s true intentions were. Johnson purposefully and masterfully integrated the sometimes small, but convincing details into his works of art in order to tell his dedicated viewers that slavery is something that should be kept: it is not as bad as what people say — it is in fact, a privilege for a person to be a slave, as only then can he/she have the pleasure of experiencing firsthand for him/herself the rare and exciting rite of passage that many call “the ride for liberty”.