By Allison Campbell-Jensen
African people first arrived in North America as enslaved persons in 1619 and the 400 years since have been marked by pain and suffering. When father and son artists Jerome W. Jones, Jr., and Jeromyah Jones decided to capture this history, however, they also chose to include portraits that inspire in their “I AM 400” The African Journey in America, 1619-2019.
That “I AM 400” artwork, printed on a 12-foot banner, now is on display in Walter Library. Jerome and Jeromyah Jones offered the banner to the University as a way to “commemorate the true character, culture, and contributions of African Americans.” The Libraries acquired it for the Givens Collection.
“We don’t want to just paint decorations; we want to paint declarations,” Jeromyah said on the Today Show. “We want to declare we must be free from the oppression that we see. … I AM tells us who we are.”
Jerome Jones has been painting portraits of outstanding Black Americans for years and, when he has been able to meet them, has requested that they sign his portraits. The 69 works of art that make up the banner began with him, 45 years ago. Landscapes speak of their cultural heritage; the portraits represent people who have inspired both of them.
“It was essential that we presented a spectrum of who we are as a people through the trailblazers who have contributed not only to American history but also world history,” Jeromyah writes. Among those portrayed are U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, mathematician Christine Darden, Martin Luther King III, attorney Oliver Hill, surgeon Dr. L.D. Britt, politician Shirley Chisholm, musician Stevie Wonder, athlete Arthur Ashe, activist Dorothy Height, poet Nikki Giovanni, and author Alex Haley.
A new course
“We chose works that not only depict the labor that our ancestors were forced to do,” Jeromyah writes, “but those that point to a course that’s new.”
The artists are honored, they say, that their joint artwork now is part of the U of M Libraries’ collection.