“In Pursuit of Freedom,” which opened in January 2014, is a long-term exhibition created in partnership with the Brooklyn Historical Society. It focuses on the Brooklyn participants of the anti-slavery movement. Being Nigerian, I am a part of the history that is charted in this exhibition—all the personalities and narratives presented for view were covered with vestiges of my ancestry.
I spent days combing through the archival material found on the project’s website, and eventually found an object that demanded a visceral response: the cover of a rare book. Titled The Life, History, and Unparalleled Sufferings of John Jea, the African Preacher. Compiled and Written by Himself, the book, published in 1811, is an autobiography of John Jea, whose unparalleled sufferings as a slave are recorded within. I am interested, foremost, in putting forward this book cover as a work of art, and I invoke the conviction that this book cover is not merely an illustration, but also a discrete object requiring further phenomenological contemplation.
My fascination with this book cover reflects how it was composed, made of parts that saunter towards a whole. Jea’s silhouetted head is shown in profile, strangely appealing; the blatant binaries presented in his memoir jump into view within it. The affectless, charcoal-black illustration is printed on an approximately five-by-eight-inch cover. Composed in Gothic letters, the title competes for attention with the image—between text and illustration, little negative space is left for contemplation. My imagination will have to conjure meanings for the silhouetted head of John Jea, in a Victorian-styled coat that doesn’t seem to reach his waist, with traces of presumably silver cords dangling from the coat.
I am held by a nostalgic interest in the history of book covers and how they function as works of art; by the book’s fugitiveness, how it merely exists as a rare manuscript; its stained and delicate pages. The book was published in keeping with the printing technology of the day, and the image I am drawn to could be the result of an improvisational impulse, not an artistic one. Yet, it remains exigent to account for an experience in seeing, and to open up spaces to create such account. At the time of its publishing, in 1811, despite the fact that a decade earlier Earl Stanhope invented the first iron press known as Stanhope Press, most of the labor involved in book production was carried out manually. The cover of this book was perceivably created by hand—the surviving copy bears pencil and ink marks, and the black ink used to color the head of the figure spreads out on the worn page.
The book was recovered in 1983, and it was around this time that it was received at Columbia University’s Rare Book and Manuscript Library—the library had become a distinct division from the university’s other libraries only a decade earlier. The physical condition of the surviving copy, however, suggests that it was one of the first copies published in 1811, making it hard to guess who had owned it. Jea was among the first African Americans to write a book about his experiences as a slave, which must have piqued the interest of the publisher (“Williams, Printer and Book-binder, 143 Queen Street, Portsea”) and even today it constitutes an important document in America’s attempt to reconcile itself with the rupture that is slavery. In 2001, the University of North Carolina led the production of an electronic edition of the book, making it free on the Internet. I had read excerpts from the book on a website that documented the American South, and then sought it out in Columbia’s library. Access to the book was fairly easy, strengthening my resolve to discover how the book was archived and yet visible.
Born in Old Calabar, a coastal town in southern Nigeria in 1773 and a major slave route, Jea was less than three when he was kidnapped. His entire family was “stolen, and conveyed to North America.” He’d been purchased by Oliver and Angelika Triebuen, who treated him in a manner, as he writes, “almost too shocking to relate,” necessarily because of his unalterable blackness. Which gives me pause, reflecting on the image that marks the book. What, in contrast, would the silhouette of a white man look like? Or, how is whiteness reducible to a silhouette? I’d imagine an illustrator wouldn’t represent the trace of a white man the same way as that of a black man—for every form of representation aims to approximate the real, or in Cartier-Bresson’s ontology, the “whole.”
He was only thirty-eight when his book was published, a comparatively young age for the publication of today’s memoir. His itinerant work as a preacher, taking him to three continents, provided sufficient material for a recounting of his life and history, as he might have thought. His memoir records a life in full: unparalleled sufferings and deliverances in Boston, New Orleans, South America, the Netherlands, France, Germany, Ireland, and England. His constraints might have been reduced into one simple imperative: to give voice to his life, the voice taken from him before he could speak. It is hardly surprising nothing is said of his death in most records of his life. Most records point to his book, part of a small collection in world literature of slave and captivity narratives—and I’d like to think these records converge in the book cover.
I ask myself, what is this illustration doing that a photograph couldn’t have? Of course, at the time of its publication photography hadn’t been invented, but my interest in this distinction might help illustrate an important element in the nature of this image. I prefer that it’s a drawing for the same reason Henri Cartier-Bresson did. At age eighty-six, Cartier-Bresson told John Berger that he’d given up photography in favor of drawing. “Given up” didn’t suggest that he no longer took photographs, but that making drawings came closer to his understanding of the obligations he had to his work. His reason, when asked about a decisive moment, was: “I prefer to talk about drawing. Drawing is a form of meditation. In a drawing you add line to line, bit to bit, but you’re never quite sure what the whole is going to be. A drawing is an always unfinished journey towards a whole.” In the absence of a photograph, which might have provided “a whole,” the illustration Jea opens up the possibility to meditate on his form, or more importantly, a form that outdistances the personality Jea could have transmitted in a photograph.
As these hidden parts of the image become apparent to me, I understand that this illustration of Jea attracts (and imposes) its language. By his unmistakability as a black man, the imagistic language is one spoken tongue-in-cheek—it is, in fact, a world of many opposites. In keeping with the content of the book, the image reinforces Jea’s sufferings as well as his deliverances, and his hope in God’s salvation is placed beside his despair over man’s unspeakable wickedness. And more, the image is consistent with the Pauline tone Jea adopts in his writing. He had been clearly influenced by St. Paul’s writing style in the New Testament, accepting his injunction to “endure hardship as a good soldier of Christ.” In the image, Jea’s steadfastness is unquestionable. Perhaps he had posed for the illustrator (quite likely), or the illustration is based on the general features of African Americans at the time (a more interesting possibility). His firm and erect pose is indissoluble. This pose confirms Jea’s book, and necessarily this image of him, as the emblematic witness of his life. This is why I think this image foreshadows and explodes into Jea’s memoir. A struggle for dominance between the two mediums is unnecessary, as one implicates the other.
From the Zephyr print edition published fall 2014.