James Douglas Moore III, commonly known as “J.D.”, is a painter, tattoo artist and a photographer. But after our conversation I come to think of him as a warrior, a man on a mission to change the world. His art makes a statement. He’s deconstructing racism and ultimately his goal is to defeat it.
With a spring in their step, two friends cross a parking lot on their way to dinner. It’s a Friday evening, they’re laughing and joking among themselves. They’re looking forward to some margaritas and tacos. As the restaurant door swings open, it ricochets off the wall and they attract the attention of a man in a dark blue shirt. He reaches for his gun. The man is a white police officer and the two friends are African-American males.
We meet in downtown Plano. From the choice of his clothes he looks studious and yet at the same time fashionable. He wears a short afro; his beard is a funky afro also. He’s black. Or should I say African-American? We’ve met to talk about how he addresses race, racism and black history in his art and yet I am hesitant, frightened almost, to use the wrong word. Perhaps I shouldn’t be using a label at all.
His passion for art started early on in the fourth grade, but it wasn’t until high school that he began to truly refine his talents. One of his first pieces, Touching My Heritage, was a school project and J.D.’s first exploration of race, culture and heritage. While researching for the piece, he interviewed his maternal grandmother and discovered that he is a descendant of both Native Americans and West Africans. He keeps the piece framed as a reminder of his roots—of where he’s come from and where he’s going. It was created in an era of innocence, a time when skin color was nothing more than the color of his skin. Since then, the realization that people are often defined and judged by race has inspired him to address these issues through his artwork.
His favorite period in art history is the Renaissance Era, when Raphael, Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci created masterpieces still admired today; when realistic depictions of the human form, often portrayed as one with God, took center stage. Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel is the perfect example.
“I’m recreating my favorite time in art history and substituting the subjects, with…” he hesitates. “A different group of people. I want to exemplify the beauty I feel was overlooked.” He’s talking about people of color. As he continues, I get the sense that he feels awkward too.
“Renaissance Art has been looked upon and admired for so many years. I started this series with the intent of creating art that would be regarded in the same manner. Works of art that depict that we can be respectable, astute, and enlightened. Art that would present the image of people of color in a manner that, in popular culture and the culture I identify with, is not being celebrated enough.”
The resulting work is two six-foot wooden panels; the main subjects framed in gold. World of Forms depicts an African-American man deep in thought, a stack of books on his knee. Behind him is a stained glass window and clouds drifting by his torso conjure up visions of heaven.World of Being is an African-American woman, dressed in a gold tunic and surrounded by African Marigolds. She looks as if she is stepping out of the Garden of Eden.
They’re the first in a series he’s working on, a beautiful and subtle movement to shed people of color in a different light.
“It was four years ago that I first realized I was different,” he starts and I’m immediately jarred by his choice of the word “different.” My mind starts to spin. Is he different? Or am I different?
My mind reels as he recounts the first time he experienced racism: when a police officer’s split-second reflex was to reach for his gun as J.D. walked into a restaurant with a friend.
“I don’t know if we opened the door too quick. I don’t know what could have startled him into wanting to put his finger on the trigger, but it confirmed a lot of the things I had been hearing about in the news. And once I became conscious of it I started to notice more and more of it.”
It’s just one story of many. Another time, J.D. and his girlfriend experienced a fellow customer complaining about their presence at a café.
It’s a reality he’s learning to live with, but he doesn’t allow it to upset him. “I don’t get upset and angry … Because I’m not confused about it. I understand what it is, I understand that it’s a form of racism and prejudice. I understand that people truly believe certain things. They believe xyz … and if I break it down … ‘Okay if I thought exactly what you thought, I would agree with you … I’d probably hate me too.’ So, since I understand it, I expect it and I learn how to address it, not necessarily to react to it, but just to act on it.”
I’m stuck here. He understands it. I don’t. I have no idea what it would be like to feel unwelcome anywhere, let alone in a public restaurant, simply because of the color of my skin.
Of course I know what racism is. However, the difference between knowing about something and understanding it is the “privilege” of experience. And although he doesn’t say anything … J.D. is right. I do know what racism is, but I’ve never found myself on the wrong end of it …therefore I do not truly understand.
“You’re not aware of it, but that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist. If you didn’t have the sense of smell, if you walked into a room with a foul odor, the odor is still there, there is just no way for you to pick it up. But maybe you just have a stuffy nose and you gain that sense of smell back. Now you become conscious of it and can tell the difference between the smell in this room and the smell in that room.”
He goes on to address one of the biggest problems with combating racism: confusion.
“A lot of things that people claim to be a racist issue are in fact other things. That is something that causes confusion and confusion is at the core of a lot of this … unclear understanding of what we’re dealing with because, it’s true, not everything is a racial issue. It could be someone treating me a certain way because I’m a young person … I’ve been followed around in Target by a black security officer with some of my friends. So, that might not have been a racial issue but that doesn’t mean that racial issues don’t exist.”
His mission, therefore, is to educate. This is exactly what he’s aiming to achieve in his most recent series of works, so new that the first of the nine is still unfinished when he shows it to me.
I’m puzzled. The subject is a white man. He holds a skull in one hand. Four skulls lie on a table in front of him.
The man is a modern representation of Johann Friedrich Blumenbach. Born in the 1700s, Blumenbach was a German scientist who divided the human species into five varieties—races—based on a study of more than 80 human skulls from across the globe. The five categories are: Caucasian, the “white” race; Mongolian, the “yellow” race; Malayan, the “brown” race; Ethiopian, the “black” race; and American, the “red” race.
These are the skulls in J.D.’s painting. The Caucasian skull is noticeably whiter; Blumenbach is holding it up as if in reverence.
J.D. explains, “Blumenbach created the word caucasian; he believed that the original race, as he puts it, came from the Caucasus mountains, specifically Georgia—because they produce the most beautiful people. He goes into detail on how other races are degenerated from the caucasian race … and that’s why we should be classified.”
It is not the first time humans were categorized into races, but Blumenbach is generally recognized as one of the most influential theorists on the subject.
He published his findings in a book, On the Natural Varieties of Mankind. J.D. owns his own copy; “It’s one of only four in the world [available to the public] … it was an expensive,” he tells me. It’s a treasured possession, one he has studied and one he often carries around with him. It’s with him for our interview.
This is his passion and it’s clear he’s spent countless hours, years even, dedicated to research. “Once you study this, you realize that we aren’t people separated by race because race was created in a time when people were colonizing people and trading people—because they thought they weren’t people, they thought they were things, property.”
The essence of J.D.’s message is that the notion of race is outdated, something which should be forgotten, relegated to the history books.
“It should be archaic terminology. It’s a social construct created by men in modern history. We’re never going to get rid of racism as long as we continue to use the classification of race. The root of the word racism is race.”
This first painting, J.D.’s interpretation of Blumenbach, will be labelled Education. The subsequent eight in the series will be: Entertainment, Economics, Labor, Law, Politics, Religion, Sex, War. “These categories are the areas in which there is white supremacy,” he explains.
“White supremacy is a term that most people have heard of but the definition is misunderstood … it’s not that the people who participate in this are claiming to be and are better than everybody else. But when we say superior we’re talking about being in supreme dominance, in control of everything and everyone at all times. It’s a system that’s affecting everyone on a global scale … the way it’s affecting you is that it’s keeping you shielded from the treatment. The system is designed to affect people like me, not exclusively people like me, just people of color in general. That’s what I want to address.”
By the end of the interview, I feel ashamed by my ignorance. If I’ve learned anything thing from J.D. it’s that this is an issue we need to talk about.
“I don’t want people to feel ashamed,” he tells me. “I want to understand what you’re gonna do now [that you understand]. Once we are aware we can have positive progress. Challenge these things.”
“My ultimate goal,” he concludes, “is progress.
Originally published in Plano Profile’s February 2017 issue.