AM I Not A Man?

The first and most identifiable image of the 18th century abolitionist movement was a kneeling African man with a banner stating “Am I Not a Man and a Brother?” below.  (Left.)

It was an image commissioned by abolitionist Quakers, playing on religious symbolism to tug on the heartstrings of white folks. The kneeling black man looking feeble and in need of the graciousness of white people, underscoring the perception of black inferiority that’s continued in art and culture until even now.

I get the intent. It’s just bullshit. So I changed the slogan to something more appropriate for any shackled person of any age, broke the chains, and added a sidearm.

We live in a time where more black men are controlled by the criminal justice industrial complex than lived as slaves before the Civil War. From the drug war to a seemingly endless laundry list of laws aimed at social control, America has become a police state with the most incarcerated human beings in the world.  The simple act of allegedly selling a few cigarettes on the streets of New York to fellow citizens got Eric Garner dead.

Even clear video evidence of the homicide viewed by everyone with a smart phone over the last year  wasn’t enough to get justice.

People should be angry.  People should stand up.

My argument has been that it wasn’t until the irreverent spread of hip hop in popular culture that the public perception of black inferiority was really challenged. That challenge took the form of a gritty, angry, beautiful, and often funny reflection of black life in our society. Through art, music, fashion, and language, our culture changed. 

But not enough. My favorite quote by Mark Twain, which sits in front of me in the form or a 5 foot tall portrait in my studio, and gave me strength when I’ve fought my battles with authority states, “Irreverence is the champion of liberty and its only defense.”

To change things I think you have to ruffle feathers.  You have to take what’s accepted, tear it apart, ridicule what is stupid, and recreate.

The peoples’ power is being challenged by the institutions in society that rely on violence to exist. Not just black people, but all people. The state and those that give it authority have exhibited a pattern of abuses on our liberty. The result being effective slavery.

The state is a fiction.  Without our belief in it, it does not exist - it has no real authority without our consent. In that way we’re all in some way responsible for what has happened. We give the institutions the power that gives the state the means to push us around.

I’m sick of it, and I think it’s past time we say “I’m not your slave motherfucker” through art, humor, music, language, and action.


4 Responses

Tanya Pattison
Tanya Pattison

April 20, 2021

I really like your interpretation of this image, and how you have changed the narrative associated with the original image. If possible, I would love to ask some you some questions about your own experiences, and what inspired you to create it? I am an Art History student at the University of Florida currently analyzing the original image and looking for some contemporary examples, so I would love to speak with you further on this.


June 09, 2020

You turned a symbol of peace and equality into one of anger and violence. I’m sure the important figures of the abolitionist movement would be proud 😔


December 21, 2015

I really think your work devreses better than these chick lit style covers, Meg. For me, the biggest offender is the cover of How I Live Now, which is one of my favourite books of all time. To me this book is universal in its appeal and definitely non gender-specific; I can’t imagine any boy thinking it might be a good read, with a cover like that. However, I like the cover of Just In Case, maybe better than the copy I own.I had a problem with my own book: The Killer’s Daughter. The original design was black and white and interesting (and importantly again, non gender-specific.) the final version was weird and pink. But I, as a first-time-published author, had no influence. Do you?I understand that publishers are in the business of maximising sales, but it’s infuriating when you think they’ve got it wrong and that the cover may alienate some readers and mislead others.

Adeeb Kasem
Adeeb Kasem

December 02, 2015

This is one of the funniest and most intelligent pictures I’ve ever seen. The whole political charge of it is condensed in the picture and I understood it instinctively in an unconscious burst of laughter. May I please include your image in a forthcoming philosophical essay which will be self-published and likely not garner any money? If I may, should I credit the artist as “Liberty Maniacs”, or does the artist prefer I use his real name (which I do not see on the page)?

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