“A Sermon for Our Ancestors” featured in The Visual Commentary on Sculpture

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Black is Blessed

Commentary by Rebekah Eklund

Laura James, a contemporary American artist, merges the style of Ethiopian Christian art with scenes from the eighteenth-century American South, when the transatlantic slave trade sold millions of Africans into slavery in the Americas. Not surprisingly, given the cruelty of American plantation slavery, James’s work emphasizes the blessings for the persecuted (Matthew 5:10–12). The connection to Africa also renders James’s use of Ethiopic tradition particularly powerful.

In the large central canvas, a black Christ delivers a snippet from the Sermon on the Mount to groups of assembled slaves, many in chains. He gives them the exhortation that follows the blessing on the persecuted: ‘Rejoice and be glad…’ (Matthew 5:12) and then the famous ‘salt and light’ sayings (Matthew 5:13–14). The smaller images surrounding the central scene depict nine (rather than eight) Beatitudes. The two blessings on the persecuted, usually treated together as the eighth and final Beatitude (Matthew 5:10–11), are depicted separately in two scenes at the lower right. One shows a slave auction and the other a man lashing his fellow-slave while being watched by the white master who commanded him to do so (in the latter, one may understand the persecuted as both the slave receiving the punishment and the one forced to mete it out).

In each scene, those receiving Christ’s blessings are African men and women at various stages of their enslavement, with the exception of a white man (‘the merciful’) who conceals two slaves under a blanket in the bottom of his boat. Of all the individual Beatitude scenes, the largest appears just above the central section; those who mourn witness a lynching while two white men observe with folded arms.

Representing Christ as an African places him in solidarity with the slaves. Unlike them, he is not barefoot, perhaps gesturing ever so quietly to the promise of the black spiritual that ‘All God’s Children Got Shoes’. The work’s title points both to the past (enslaved Africans) and to present-day African American viewers (‘our ancestors’). The message is clear: the suffering slaves, and their present-day descendants who suffer still, are the blessed.

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