'I Am 400' Banner captures spirit of Black American experience
NADINE MATTHEWS | 2/18/2021, midnight
Richmond, Virginia-based father and son artists Jerome and Joromyah Jones have found a way to mount an art exhibition in multiple locations simultaneously—sort of.
In 2018, the pair, whose work focuses on Black American history and culture, came up with a way to commemorate the 400-year anniversary of the first Africans arriving in America, which was coming up the following year.
Thirty-year-old Jeromyah stated in an interview, “We needed to project these messages that dealt with our 400-year history and the importance of this milestone in 2019. My father came up with the idea of bringing it to the people.”
Wanting to reach as many people as possible, they developed a 4x12 foot vinyl banner, showcasing almost 70 of their paintings that they felt typified the Black experience. “It was a collection of works that showed our journey, reflections of the American landscape from the Afro-American perspective.”
Many of their subjects, which father Jerome began painting over 40 years ago, are American heroes such as Muhammad Ali, Randall Robinson, Martin Luther King, the Williams Sisters, Stevie Wonder and Charles Drew. “We wanted to show whose shoulders the luminaries of today stand on so we don’t forget our giants,” stated Jones.
The process involved careful curation of their collection of works going back to 1975. They took pictures, which they laid out “on a huge poster board.” After the elder Mr. Jones completed the final composition of the images, they turned to Virginia-based graphic designer, and owner of Dzine Online Duane Brannon, to create the physical banner.
Some of the images bear the autographs of some of their subjects such as NY Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm, actors Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, NASA Mathematician Dr. Christine Darden, Dr. Dorothy Height, Martin Luther King III, Xernona Clayton, musician Wynton Marsalis, Dr. Wyatt T. Walker, author Alex Haley, poet Nikki Giovanni, attorney Oliver Hill, tennis great Arthur Ashe and more. Jerome Jones sometimes met his subjects in person and they were happy to autograph his paintings.
There’s also a strong desire that the banner will inspire hope in the young people who are exposed to it. States Jones, “Sometimes young people may not know exactly what they want. It’s not really about the people in the paintings, but about understanding the determination they had to accomplish what they did in spite of the impediments that came before them. The more options you have in your mind, the easier it is to find your calling.” He also says he hopes the banner creates “a cycle of learning,” motivating people to do research to find out about the significance of those pictured.
He points out they were also careful to include subjects that remind viewers of past struggles that African Americans have overcome. “It’s important not to forget because history repeats itself. If you don’t learn the lesson, you don’t get the blessing and that’s so pertinent not just to the youth in our community but those who don’t look like us. How can you be blessed if you don’t try to right your wrongs?”
Jones emphasized that he and his father were deliberate in making sure there was a spiritual dimension to the overall message of the banner. “We wanted to include not only cultural and historical facets of our journey, we’re deeply inspired by the Bible, and the Black church has been instrumental in getting our people through periods of persecution throughout four centuries of struggle.”
The banner has been exhibited in a plethora of locations thus far, and the number continues to grow. In New York, they include St. Lawrence University in Canton, N.Y., Union Theological Seminary on Broadway, Monroe College in the Bronx, and Wyandanch Public Library in Wyandanch, N.Y.
In addition, the I Am 400 banner has also been added to the collections of the African Union Mission in D.C., William & Mary, the Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science in Los Angeles, Wesleyan University, the Atlanta University Center Robert Woodruff Library, the August Wilson Center for African American Culture in Pittsburgh, Hampton University’s William R. and Norma B. Harvey Library, the Africentric Alternative School in Toronto and more.
Jones reveals that many PWI’s (predominantly white institutions) have been eagerly receptive to having the banner hung in their halls as well. “Many predominantly white schools have purchased our banners, probably even more than have HBCUs,” he said. “One of our goals is to have sponsors donate banners to the HBCUs after they acquire them because I would definitely like for them to have it but when it comes to other schools, there’s definitely been a good response.”
When people view the banner, Jones states, he also wants them to see it as a bridge. “It connects those African brothers and sisters who never left the motherland and the descendants of the slaves who were born here. We also want it to symbolize bridging the generational gaps in our community.”