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Pasasha Art

The Illiterate Master

Original Oil Painting by Jon McDonald. A part of the 12 piece collection titled "Slavery's Chill". 60 x 52 inches, framed. 


The tables are turned in this iconic piece where the slave, with his tattered, dirty clothes and lack of free will, reads a map for his illiterate master. During this time, it was illegal for black slaves to know how to read, and dire consequences could result if they were discovered to hold this knowledge. According to historical accounts, slaves would learn from their masters' children after they returned home from school. Then, in the evening, the slaves would in turn teach their own children this gift of knowledge they discreetly gained earlier in the day. The issue of power is raised here, where the slave owner possesses a gun in his holster, harboring the power to shoot and kill, where the slave, and consequently his own child, possess the power of literacy, which spans far beyond the capabilities of a gun.

In the background, under the majestic sky, amongst the vibrant green fields, a group of slaves take care of their own and their master's children. The theme of language and adaptation is strong here, as McDonald asks us to consider the difficult challenges the slaves faced when it came to language and communication. As Africans, the slaves spoke their own native languages, but as soon as they arrived on the shores of the United States, they were forced to learn English and forget their own language. With so many other immense physical and emotional challenges to endure, learning English appears to be one of the simpler tasks, though it is indeed a difficult language to pick up without formal training. The children of the slaves, born in the United States were sure to have the advantage of learning English from birth, and if they were lucky, they may secretly receive the gift of literacy, though freedom would never exist for them. 

The black female slave with the face mask is testament to the fact that, even after learning English, slaves had no ability to truly express themselves. a mask such as this was worn by slaves who talked "too much." It cloaked them in a veil of silence, deprived them of the ability to express thoughts and feelings, and articulated the inescapable domination the whites had over the black slaves. 

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