In 1960 I was in prison. I went to hear a preacher, and there was this certain thing he said. It made sense to me. It was the first time a preacher ever made good sense to me. It was the Old Testament. And I went back to my cell and I just sit and was thinking about it. And I heard this voice. That's what I want the world to know, that I heard this voice and I believe what it said. It was like a whisper at first. I didn't know what it said. I wasn't listening at it. I started listening and I thought it was a ventriloquist throwing his voice in the cell. The guard came by and I told him about the ventriloquist. They didn't pay me any attention. I went to singing trying to drown out the voice.
I was thinking I'm losing my mind or the devil is bothering me. I heard a lot from my family about the devil having so much power. They used to carry me to church, and the preacher talked all about the devil, that the devil had almost as much power as God. My mother used to tell me a lot about Jesus Christ. She would say Jesus Christ was the devil. She wouldn't say anything like that in front of my daddy because he was a Baptist. I wouldn't pay too much attention to her.
The next time I heard the voice, I said, "Well, let me hear what it's saying." The first thing he told me was, "I'm God." I thought that I was cracking up. I said, "If you're God, prove it." He said, "Step up to the cell door and I'm going to let a bird land on that window sill, and you take control of him. Tell it what to do and it will do it." And sure enough, the bird landed on it.
My early life was totally a wreck. But some positive things have happened and made me change. That bird is proof to me that there is a God. I should have known that before, but I was so ignorant and in the dark. That bird led me to my religion, Judaism. That bird on that man's head is like the spirit of God. I felt the presence of God following me regularly.
I was talking against the teaching of the New Testament in jail. The people in jail listened to me, and certain things I was saying they were taking heed to. Some of them were getting their freedom and spreading certain messages I was giving to them that would help defeat Christianity. I'm not against Christian people, I'm just against what they do with Christianity. A lot of Christians know what's going on within Christianity.
Indians and colored people was forced to live by the New Testament in slavery. Before the Europeans came to this country, the Indians worshiped the Great Spirit, which was God. In Africa, before they knew about Jesus Christ, they worshiped the same God as the Old Testament God. They made them believe in the white man's religion to gain control over other people with different nationalities. Europeans always wanted to rule the world. The New Testament, if you read it, gives the Europeans advantages to rule over other peoples if you believe in it. Europeans was really atheist people. They didn't believe in a true God. They invented this Jesus Christ who is not God. With Christianity, they pretend to worship the true God, but Jesus Christ is an idle God.
They took me out of jail and put me in a mental institution. They figured nothing he going to say in the mental institution would mean nothing to nobody anyway. They knew the people's minds was so messed up that I wouldn't be heard, the people wouldn't pay no attention.
I tell people God came for me. God converted me. I didn't know nothing about Judaism. I didn't even know I was a-living by the Old Testament. God did that himself.
I am not a Jew. I live by the Old Testament and follow the same faith that all Jews are supposed to follow. Jews are supposed to live by it, but a lot of them don't. Some people say, "You're a black Jew." I say, "No, I'm not a black Jew. I live by the same faith in God and belief in God the Jews are supposed to have." I saw a Jew on TV who said he became a Christian because it was the only way he could get advantages for himself in this country. I don't want to live life if I got to give up my pride and give up what I believe in. Life would be meaningless to me if I got to give in to something I don't believe in. I wouldn't get nothing out of life.
People have lightened up on me about the Old Testament, but I have had a hard time. I hate to put pressure on my children and family because of that. But here I am a black man, which is kind of like a negative thing in Memphis. I don't mean nobody no harm by my beliefs. I don't want to knock on nobody's door about Judaism. I'm just here at my house. It's the only place I talk about it. My mother turned me towards Judaism by teaching me against Christianity.
My children tell me now, "Daddy, we got double trouble being Jewish and black both." That's why they think they're having such a hard time. They're right, I guess, but I got faith in God. It's not my choice altogether to be what I am. God converted me to Judaism. I'm battling it out. I'm not worrying about that because it will work out. I'm not going to change my faith, and I can't change the color of my skin. If I could I wouldn't anyway. My wife says Michael Jackson is the only one who can do that.
Emmett Till whistled at a white lady in Mississippi. They beat him up and chained him up and throwed him in a river. Colored people wasn't nothing in the eyes of the white man. They didn't have no rights or nothing. If he did whistle, it wasn't an insult. I don't believe he meant any wrong by it. He was visiting from the North. Courting up North is different. Jack Johnson married a white woman in the North. Emmett Till was used to that. So he whistled at this white woman and died for it. He wasn't nothing but a kid. They never caught his killers. They probably knew who they was but didn't try to find them. That shows the kind of disrespect for colored people that the white man has. I put down about Emmett Till in a letter I wrote to President Kennedy. I brought Emmett Till into it because I figured it would get Kennedy's attention. I sent quite a few letters to him. I told him in a letter that when I get out of prison I plan to marry his wife. "If that's what you can get away with doing to Emmett Till," I was saying, "what you going to do to me?" They throwed me in a mental institution.
Writing them letters, that's the only way I figured I could get their attention so I could explain what God wanted of people. Maybe I went about it the wrong way. I got attention all right, but not the way I planned it.
I started right out of prison in '66. Wherever I went, I'd go in five-and ten-cent stores that sells chalk and I'd write on sidewalks and underneath tunnels and overpasses, on the concrete walls with the chalk, certain messages. Messages that God wanted me to write. It was all about the Old Testament.
I wrote letters to my peoples, and also to strangers whose addresses I'd get from the newspapers. I'd write all over the envelopes, not on the inside, never wrote letters on the inside. I wrote about God. I wrote on the outside of the envelope so the mailman or anybody sharing a mailbox or who picked up the letter could read it. That way I could spread the word faster.
About 1971 I started to put the signs on the fence of my house. The shutters were did in 1976. The first river I painted was on the shutter. A ship was tied up in the river. The river is hope. Back in prison I was sending notes out by flushing them in the commode in plastic bottles. I figured they would get to the river and somebody might pick them up. I guess I sent out hundreds of them. I was locked up six years straight. I sent notes out of the mental institution, too. I was begging for help. I was begging that someone would listen to me.
A hobo was on the shutter, too, and a flower and a bee. I did a lot of painting, too, clowns and things, just to amuse myself. Long time before that I had drew some pictures and sold to restaurants. One of the clown pictures got sold to this man passing through the neighborhood—hitchhiking by, I guess. He saw it up on the porch and asked if he could buy it. I painted ghost figures on the chimney to scare the kids away. It stopped them from coming over in my yard.
A lot of my art comes from my imagination. Painted from feeling. But some of it is real special for me. Hobo and Birdman are my reality. It has to do with my own life. The mountains and rivers and flowers, those are special. See, I felt at one time that I didn't have no friends, nobody on my side. Nobody. My mother and father had turned against me. I came up with this hobo, searching for some relationship with people. Lonely person. That's why you see that hobo walking by himself, in isolation. They say my great-granddaddy on my mother's side was a full-blooded Indian, worked on the railroad. Daddy's side had white blood in it. I can make a hobo any color. Hobo is me: red, white, black, yellow. I'm trying to skip by racism.
I like to attach certain things to my pictures. I see something and I'm pulled to it and want to put it on the pictures. Placemats, toys, reflectors, roots. Things I find in the flea market. I get a feeling from some of them things. I call it "attachment art."
The roots was one of my first art. Back when I moved to Looney Street, about in the middle seventies, I used to go over to the water and find pieces of trees—roots, branches—that reminded me of something, and I would make something out of it. Paint it, put it in the yard. The yard was full of that back then. People ask me questions, like why I make my art, like it's so I can heal or if I'm psychic. I tell them I don't believe in none of that. I believe you got to have faith in God. I believe God heals, God knows. Whatever happens is the will of God. People believe in witchcraft and that old voodoo stuff, but I don't. I don't argue against them because I found out you get into a lot of trouble trying to explain things to people.
Mother did some natural healing, but a lot of people did that. She would use herbs and things on me when I was sick. I had something with garlic and something around my neck. I can't remember what it was for. I hardly ever went to the doctor. Just went once, when I had a nail in my foot. Other sicknesses Mother took care of. She would use hog hoofs, chicken manure, cow manure, castor oil, sassafras tea. She made a tea out of hog hoofs. Sardines was for mumps. We used a lot of remedies back in those times.
I had a wife and a son and daughter back in my early life, but none of that worked out. I was too young and too wild for it then. Then when I was in my thirties I got to thinking it was time to find another wife. I was living on Louisa Street in a shotgun house by myself. I had been without a wife—or let me put it like this: a decent girlfriend—for thirteen years. It came to me: I left all my furniture and clothes and belongings, just left it in the house, and just left out, moving to search for a wife. Started hitchhiking, went to Palestine, Arkansas. It's a little old place; they called it a town but it wasn't but about two stores. I asked these people if I could sleep in this broken-down car in their yard, and they told me they knew a place I could spend the night. They took me to this man's house, and I spent the night there. I met his daughter Rosie Lee, and we talked, and I got her address.
Then I went to Little Rock and stayed at a hotel and was steadily searching for a wife. I got some ladies' addresses there. Next place was Oklahoma. Got a job, met a couple of Indian women, couple of colored women, one white woman; got their addresses. Went on to Topeka, Kansas; met a white lady and a couple of colored ladies; got their addresses. Went to St. Louis, met a couple of colored ladies. Went back to Dyersburg, Tennessee. I knew a lot of ladies there, it being my hometown. My daddy was there and set a trap for me. I got angry about it, started speaking out, got locked up again—this time for two years.
I was turned out in '68. When I got out I went back down to Palestine. I had been writing to Rosie Lee. We dated a while, went to theaters and things. Me and her got married in September of '68.
I courted a lot of them, probably about three hundred, looking for the right one. Rosie Lee was the first one I saw, and it's funny that she turned out to be the right one. Me and Rosie Lee have had eight children together—Ceandredel, Josephina, the twins Hosea and Mosea, Rebekah, Rachel, Daniel, and Elijah. They're pretty good children.
Things ain't been as good as they could have been lately. I lost my house to the finance company 'cause of three months payments I got behind. I been in that house twenty-five years. I planned to die in that house. The doctor told me that my diabetes might make me blind, so I learned how to go around the whole house, inside and out, blind with a cane. They took the house away from me and painted over everything, all my paintings. Seems to me like every time I start to get respect for my art something bad comes along to take my spirit back down. Rosie Lee thinks it is a conspiracy. But whatever happens is, I believe, the will of God. Of course, if it's his will to make things get a little better, I won't mind.
Taken from interviews with Joe Light by William Arnett in 1994, 1995, and 2001.