Questioning Black History: An Animated Response to the Willie Lynch Letter

By Keisha Oliver

The legitimacy of the Willie Lynch speech ‘The Making of A Slave” is one of much controversy within Black history. Lynch was said to be a British slave owner in the West Indies who was invited in 1712 to teach his methods to his American counterparts on the banks of the St. James River of Virginia. While activists and historians argue Lynch’s existence and the credibility of the speech, what remains interesting is the evolution of the rhetoric surrounding the propaganda. Fact or fiction it prevails as an ongoing public discourse with a myriad of responses across academic and artistic platforms.

Bahamian animator Jason Evans otherwise known as Artist Javan recently joined the discussion with his animation and installation

“Making of A Slave – response.”  Evans came across Lynch’s speech during his studies at Drexel University in 1995. A time when much attention was given to Lynch marked by Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan’s references during his Million Man March address. Although always intrigued by Lynch’s myth it was only in 2016 that Evans decided to formalize his research and respond to the speech creatively.

Jason Evans (Artist Javan), 2016

Currently, on display in The Pro Gallery at the University of The Bahamas “Making of A Slave – a response” offers an animated narrative to a discussion that is uncomfortable for many.  You are welcomed by a projection of Evans’ artist statement beginning with an excerpt from Lynch’s speech “I HAVE A FULL PROOF METHOD FOR CONTROLLING YOUR BLACK SLAVES. I guarantee every one of you that, if installed correctly, IT WILL CONTROL THE SLAVES FOR AT LEAST 300 HUNDREDS YEARS.”  For those unfamiliar with the text, the abrupt inhumane tones leave you slightly unsettled but curious.

The moment you enter the gallery, the installation space seems intimate with theatrical undertones. The animation is projected in a dark room with an aged sofa for the viewer’s comfort and a vintage satchel in a distant corner. The audience versus the two objects stages a composition for conversations on history, separation, and complacency. The presence and aesthetics of the sofa and satchel offers an interesting preface to the animation. Their placement and distance from each other touch on broader issues of black Caribbeaness and our willingness or lack thereof to engage with our entire history in a meaningful way. This prompts the question, are we merely spectators or contributors?

In The Bahamas, we too are guilty and blinded by our stubbornness and safety net. Like the audience viewing the satchel, our past is still our present. We acknowledge our ancestral heritage as Afro and Caribbean people, which for the most part was passed on from our European influences, but our history is more layered. There is much to be told. What is lost are the moments that co-exist with the colonial narrative. The undocumented stories that are buried with our ancestors are unable to reach future generations. The question is when will we rise from complacency and continue on the path of Bahamian historians like Dr. Gail Saunders, Dr. Keith Tinker, and their contemporaries. Research is far from glamorous, but necessary and artists like Evans teach us that non-traditional and artistic ways of analysis and revisiting a subject matter are valid and important for our cultural authenticity.

Frame from animation “Making of a Slave- a response” by Jason Evans, 2016

The installation experience revisits this idea of mind control. Committed to the small space, while subjected to the harsh audacious sequence taken from Lynch’s speech you are forced to be attentive as the words move quickly across the screen. What is most interesting is the void of sound in the piece, which touches on the absence of the speech giver. Who is Willie Lynch? Is he a myth? This also addresses the psychological issues associated with engaging with such a statement. How it makes you feel lies at the heart of the ongoing public debate. 

Initially, when the animated words appear and disappear in the black background you are slightly disappointed as you think to yourself, ‘Is this it?’ After a short build up, the script begins to form an outline of the human brain. The artist’s attempt to visualise the “Willie Lynch mentality” a construct of a racial and social divide, the oppressor versus the slave. Lynch’s malicious tone “Don’t forget, you must pitch the OLD black male vs. the YOUNG black male . . . You must use the DARK skin slaves vs. the LIGHT skin slaves,” portrays the art of division in skin colour, age and gender, sadly a social ill haunting us daily. It is vexing on many levels. But unlike our slaved ancestors, we have no one else to blame. Not all of us are public activists, but these warped values will remain if as individuals we don’t bury fascism and promote cultural and social advocacy.

Egbert “Bert” Williams, 1915.

On the subject of film, blackness and Bahamian history we all can learn from the life and career of the iconic Egbert “Bert” Williams. Williams was a Bahamian actor and comedian who defied the odds and excelled in the 19th century, an age when racial inequality and stereotyping were the norm. This past week The Antiquities, Monuments and Museum Corporation (AMMC) in conjunction with the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), commemorated the legacy of Williams who was the first black actor in film and Broadway and is considered a pioneer during the Vaudeville and Renaissance era of black entertainment throughout the Americas.

The way Williams embraced the ‘blackface’ used mainly as a trend for non-black performers of his time to represent a black person is similar to Evans methodology. Both artists adopt the subject matter meant for oppression and subvert its build-up to demonstrate new thoughts on the construct of black identity through film.