Why should the world be over-wise,
In counting all our tears and sighs?
Nay, let them only see us, while
We wear the mask.
—Paul Laurence Dunbar, "We Wear the Mask"
The first piece was an anteater called Midnight. In 1978 Ralph Griffin found a piece of zigzagged wood in Poplar Root Branch, the small creek that ran behind his home. He painted the wood black and white, "spotted" red eyes, and affixed two strips of tin to serve as legs. Some say Griffin was inspired to make it because ants were overrunning his land, but its name draws it autobiographically into confluence with its creator: Griffin worked as a second-shift custodian at Murray's Biscuits, from which he came home around midnight each night. When he says, in a different context, "black is a dangerous color," the black anteater's qualities become complete: helical, mysterious, "dangerous." Midnight is the time of magical transformation, that moment of what Victor Turner, writing about the roles of ritual, calls "liminality": "pure potency, where immoderacy is normal, even normative, where anything can happen, and where the elements of culture and society are released from their customary configurations and recombined in bizarre and terrifying imagery." This transformational moment was central to Griffin's mythology and his root sculpture.
Ralph Griffin was the son of a Burke County, Georgia, cotton farmer, and he stayed on the farm until he was thirty. Then, like so many other vernacular artists of the day (though he did not yet know he was an artist), he decided to ramble. He recalled traveling widely, including wandering throughout the coastal country of Georgia (one of the last significant American repositories of intact African lore and belief) and working at a variety of jobs along the Gulf Coast of Florida for several years before returning to the county of his birth and residing near the town of Girard, with his wife, Loretta (nee Gordon), in the lowland Georgia flood plain of the Savannah River. In 1989 he retired from the cookie factory where he had worked for twenty-three years without missing a day of work or taking a day of vacation. After Midnight, he made root sculptures for about fifteen years before his death from cancer in 1992. For its use of unadorned found wood and its guiding mythology, Griffin's deceptively spare art exemplifies both root sculpting's thoroughly localized roles in establishing ecological and spiritual equilibrium and its contemporary capacity to serve as a (frequently ironic and deflected) means of social critique. Griffin's art, as seconded by the thoroughgoing incognito of his personality, reveals the ways that African American resistance to oppression percolated among numerous innocuous acts and procedures before there existed a freedom movement to give them names.
The roots that contained what he called "deep feeling" invariably came from Poplar Root Branch. Griffin seldom altered the pieces of found wood he discovered there. He believed those roots dated to "back in Noah's time" and had "come through water" to the present day. For him, as for many root sculptors, what struck him most about roots was not only their age and form, but the appropriateness of the manner of their presentation to him, in his case through the transience and mutability of the streambed. Roots, particularly the streamlined, tumbled, hard knots of wood that he felt possessed deep feeling and predated the formation of America and the New World, betokened possibilities never actualized within the society he inhabited and observed.
Griffin's mythology of the root can be more accurately described as a set of theological and ecological beliefs about water. Rising up from the sandy ground to give itself to the river, Poplar Root Branch was to Griffin both origins and endings; new water meets old to make agreements over the wood in the streambed. Roots in Griffin's mythology are both hydrotropic and hydropathic. That is, their forms and configurations are originally governed by their quest for water (hydrotropism). Then, after their death, the roots are dissolved by, and reborn in, the water, which further tightens and hardens their forms (hydropathy). These two lives of the root, first as supporter of the tree on land and then (after its first life and function is over) as dormant, free-floating signifier awaiting its beaching in Griffin's world, metaphorize the two "lives" of humans, who live first as literal biological roots for their descendants and then figuratively as ancestors. In addition, by Baptist tradition, people, like these roots, must "die" to prepare for their baptismal rebirth in water. Griffin's roots similarly pass from a life in the soil to a second life in the water.
In her 1943 essay "High John de Conquer," Zora Neale Hurston wrote of the famous black conjure root, John the Conqueror, and connected it to the eponymous, antebellum slave superhero-trickster, John, who in legend roamed the South, continually foiling slave owners' wickedness and hardness:
First off, he was a whisper; a will to hope, a wish to find something worthy of laughter and song. Then the whisper put on flesh. . . . The sign of this man was a laugh, and his singing-symbol was a drumbeat No parading drum-shout like soldiers out for a show. It did not call to the feet of those who were fixed to hear it. It was an inside thing to live by. . . . High John de Conquer went back to Africa, but he left his power here, and placed his American dwelling in the root of a certain plant. Only possess that root, and he can be summoned at any time.
In its reprinting in Mother Wit from the Laughing Barrel: Readings in the Interpretation of Afro-American Folklore, Hurston's piece is prefaced with the admonition that there exists scant documentation of a genuine folkloric relationship between the two Johns. Hurston's linkage, seemingly a poetic license, is prophetic, however, for Griffin was aware of John's two incarnations, as trickster and as root. As the titles of his works attest, Griffin was "down" with the kinds of black folklore permeated by John and the Massa. He also admitted to art historian Robert Farris Thompson that some years before he had been shown a John the Conqueror root charm in Tennessee.
John Getting Graduated, one of Griffin's early works, places a coal-black body into specialized robes to make a point about assimilation; John the root-trickster, the product of one cultural wisdom tradition, infiltrates another tradition without renouncing his dangerous, seething blackness. It may be pertinent that the gown is painted in a color known along the Georgia and Carolina coast as "haint blue," a color associated with the interdiction of malevolent spirits (and also the color of the water from which the root graduates into Griffin's oeuvre). John, Doctor of Conjure, teaches what African Americans in Bastrop County, Texas, are also recorded to have known: "White man got de money an' education, De Nigguh got Gawd an' conjuration." The root goes out in the world to shake things up, silently.
Noah's Ark, one of the oldest surviving pieces, similarly connects the doubleness implicit in John the root with the doubleness of the original biblical deluge, which was both extermination and Providential rebirth. Because of Griffin's belief in the ante-diluvian genealogies of his roots, Noah's Ark may be imagined to be his artistic crossroads: a work of art directing energies concerning politics, race, history, and religion. Noah's Ark, possibly the conceptual high-water mark of the root-sculpting tradition, is a root sculpture that enacts its maker's poetics of the root and, tellingly, reappropriates and retools its "folk" poetics by becoming immanent in them. "All my work is like the Testaments," he once said, vouchsafing his seriousness of purpose and forewarning us of the layers he detected in his art. The Ark's meanings assume untold dimensions by reference to the other founding vessels of America: the slave ship and the Mayflower. Noah's Ark discloses the uneasy unity in black and white New World mythologies, for both traditions have trusted in biblical "figuralism," the belief that events or images from the Bible foreshadow later events and define communities' divine design. The best-known of these figuralisms is the Puritans' political configuration of America as an Exodus experience of latter-day Israelites surviving the Wilderness. Vincent Harding, in "The Uses of the Negro Past," has described the ways African Americans traditionally have also partaken of figuralism, inverting the Puritan schema and rendering the Middle Passage a transport into Egypt (or Babylon), versus the Puritans' figural Exodus from Old World bondage. African Americans have also invoked the image of biblical Ethiopia (Psalm 68:31) to prefigure their sense of communal purpose. And, in this century, Martin Luther King Jr. made explicit use of figuralism, particularly through his ability to reinvert earlier figuralisms into a new sense of an inclusive Promised Land that was more a terrain of moral consciousness than a literal, geographic locus.
Moses, conjure man, has generally been central to all these figuralisms. Noah's Ark appears to step back even further, figuring Black America as a "Noah's Ark" that is implicated homeopathically in obliteration and rejuvenation, separatism and assimilation. Griffin's genius is to see the Middle Passage, despite its horror, as the possibility for a new civilization, the American civilization to which Griffin belonged and the only one to which he could belong. And yet, conversely, the saberlike forms of the Ark connote violent severing—of heads or shackles—and the puncturing of the waves of time by this endless Ark, these "contaminated drifting blues." Noah's Ark announces a long false start between the biblical Deluge and Griffin's time. This bracketing preserves the healing potential of the roots—of history—that have been metaphorically cleansed and prepared by their long immersion in water. The black root here rides as captain above decks on the bridge, rather than in the cargo hold.
Just as Griffin was "down" with folklore, he was down with the Testaments. Could this Ark embody Ham, the son of Noah who by legend became the progenitor of the African peoples? The figuralism of Ham, whose son is condemned in Genesis to be a "servant of servants" ("Ham" means "black" or "hot" in Hebrew), has been widely invoked in America as a justification for slavery. A close examination of this Ark reveals an incipient human form, a male figure with black head, red arms, and blue legs, leaping and touching his toes, whose acrobatics are both a leap forward (over water, through time) and a leap up (over impediments, to a new level). His caper defies bondage to sap his strength or agility. Perfectly balanced, Noah's [Ham's?] Ark is also always in danger of falling. Noah's Ark, like much of Griffin's work, contains a second image (here the human one), which modifies or contests the more immediately present image, and which establishes an "inside thing to live by" (for the object and its creator): a triangular dialogue (polylogue) among tide, first image, and second image. This interplay, more than the naked physical object, constitutes the works' culturally specific communications. The Ark's free embrace of historically contradictory propositions, including the tragedies of perpetual loss it safeguards, makes it one of the most densely allusive, anthemic icons in American art.
What is the menagerie this Ark unshackled upon Poplar Root Branch's shores? Black Felix the Cat, troublemaking feline of comics and animated cartoons, was overturned by a theme song whose refrain reiterated that "whenever he gets in a fix, he reaches into his bag of tricks!" ("Black cat bone" is probably the best-known ingredient of mojos, and the black cat in many cultures is considered a sign of bad luck.) This cat tells of narrow escapes, of always almost being found out; his body is charred (but not incinerated) wood. The cartoon animal-pet becomes trickster, whose magical powers hide among his fictive selves, his "dangerous" blackness and half-burned body. Although Felix the Cat amply illustrates the cross-pollination in the black South of traditional oral folktales and mass American cultural idioms, it more specifically reveals Griffin's identification with the impish freedom permitted these household pets and cartooned beings. In Figures in Black: Words, Signs, and the Racial Self, Henry Louis Gates Jr. has written of the ways slaves accepted their masters' chastisements that they were "bad sheep" and inverted the rebuke to initiate a long process of black covert reappropriation of American language. For Griffin, as with artists like Joe Light, Bessie Harvey, Thornton Dial Sr., Thornton Dial Jr., Charles Williams, and Charlie Lucas, the aesthetic stakes are also high, in that the found images shed by popular culture, especially its dismissive, implicitly class-bound or race-bound images, seethe with "signifying)" potential. These alter egos' ultimate trick is to flicker between something trenchantly socially critical and something stridently harmless, generic, or ingenuous. (Compare with Thornton Dial's hilarious, vertiginously undecidable parody, Hoodoo People in the United States and the Hoodoo Busboy Serving Hamburgers.) As Eugene Genovese writes, "If a slave informer heard a black preacher praise a runaway by calling him a 'ba-ad nigger,' what could he tell his master beyond saying he thought the preacher meant the opposite of what he had said?" (Moreover, Griffin's "studied ambiguity" was protective against unsympathetic African American members of his community, who would likewise be baffled by his sculpture.) Felix the Cat grows indirectly as well from the strange but pervasive dynamic of the minstrel tradition, in which white caricatures about black culture were incorporated into traveling shows that entered into and altered black consciousness. Yet the indurate "studied ambiguity" of artists such as Griffin stringently regulates this process, rerouting these energies in strategically unexpected ways.
In Shamanism, Colonialism, and the Wild Man: A Study in Terror and Healing, Michael Taussig describes Peruvian folk beliefs concerning the nakaq, a Caucasian or mestizo phantasm that supposedly steals the body fat of pongos, or Indian serfs (pongo is also the name given mountain spirit priests), to use in medicines, to lubricate machines, or to grease the faces of votive saints in church shrines. Colonial whites have been known to play upon and buy into this fear:
In the midst of the techniques constituting these rites, there is a figure who provides the substantiality necessary to bind the flashing ephemera of attributions and counterattributions into a redemptive force. It is an imaginary figure, one constituted by that flashing field of othernesses—whites' representations of Indians' representations of whites' representations of Indians. It is the figure of the wild woman and the wild man, pagan figures attributed with magic to kill and magic to heal socially caused illnesses and misfortune by their thus-defined civilized superiors. These are the great artifacts: fetishized antiselves made by civilizing histories—the wildly contradictory figure of the Primitive, less than human and more than human. . . . These are images of wildness imputed to these slaves, ex-slaves, and pongos, then extracted from them drenched in the otherness this imputation so heightens, as is the fat extracted by the nakaq—power slippery and magical that can exorcise from the colonizing self the evil of having more.
Particularly in his favorite subject, the "Wizard," Ralph Griffin's iconography participates in this regenerative approach to dangerous images. He strategically activates corrosive, interculturally constructed forms through tactics similar to those of the Peruvian "wild" medicine men and shamans. The wizard, originatively, factors and manipulates the volatile powers of the root. The body of Wizard combines several incarnations of wood, from hydropathically molded roots (as in the head), to pine bark, milled planks, and plywood. "Wizard" is another name here for root doctor—the traditional conjureman—but the wizard's added, unique, and contemporary efficacy lies in its leaching of the historical toxic hatred and secrecy of the Klansman, the oppressive and spiritually oppressed white conjurer. (The form and color of Klan robes were based in part upon widespread white assumption of preternatural Negro fears of "haints" and ghosts.) These black-or brown-faced wizards inhabit garments woven of fears and beliefs about fear. Wizards signify on the idea of magical essence by revealing how the root's "power" is actually the active, ongoing project of a historically conducted, often amnesiac intercultural polylogue of representations and counterrepresentations among social groups, classes, and races. The rounded runners supporting him make him, like his affective power, appear to hover. Wizards appropriate hatred, as Felix the Cat appropriates caricature or minstrelsy, to subdue or redirect it, invoking humor where necessary (like Hurston's slaves laughing at their plight): the idea of a black man in Klansman's garb provokes absurd laughter even as it hypothesizes about fears that buttress interracial hegemony. Wizards become echo chambers bouncing parody—saturated embodiments of interracial distrust (and that fear's socially multiplicative and degenerative tendencies) off of a somber desire to commemorate in physical form the root's basic medicinal power and deposition in Poplar Root Branch. Temporalized beliefs thus marry the idea of timeless belief. Contemporary identity signifies on its origins and its desire for origins.
Griffin's "Wand" (an untitled piece which he referred to as a wand but would not formally title so) consists of a (once again, black) human face, with a nodule of unpainted wood as its nose, lodged between two white bird heads facing in opposite directions. They emanate from the black face like doves from a magician's hat or from Noah's Ark at the conclusion of the Deluge. Birds may fly in any direction. The face in the middle becomes a kind of warp, a wrinkle, the point of a sudden change of direction, a "break," like the shifting current of the creek. Midnight. Once again, the root's sharpened form commends its piercing or slicing potentials. This piece evokes Sterling Stuckey's description in Slave Culture: Nationalist Theory and the Foundations of Black America of the remarkable Brer Rabbit tale, "Brer Rabbit in Red Hill Churchyard" (collected in South Carolina), in which the rabbit and the mockingbird "had chunes floatin' all 'round de night air. Dey could stand a chune on end, grab it up an' throw it away . . . an' make dem chunes sound like dey was strugglin' to get away one minute, an' de next dey sound like sump'n gettin' up close an whisperin'." Stuckey comments that
the Red Hill ceremony seems, on its face, just one of many in which Brer Rabbit uses his fiddle as a kind of magic wand—for example, to realize his will against predators or in competition for the hand of a maiden. What seems equally obvious, though inexplicable, is the strong convergence of the world of the living and that of the dead as a function, it seems, of nothing more than Brer Rabbit's genius with his instrument. That a deeper meaning lies beneath the surface of the tale is suggested . . . by slave folklore, which holds that all sorts of things, under the right conditions, are possible in the graveyard. . . . At such times [in the cemetery], day appears to light up the night . . . the real seems unreal, the unreal real.
Later in Slave Culture, Stuckey argues that "in blinding whites to the value of African culture, racism helped the slave, as segregation helped his descendants, preserve essentials of African culture." Racism aided Griffin, too. His personal and aesthetic strategy, signifying upon the accommodationist persona he and most other long-lived African Americans adopted in the Deep South, was to use the appearances of tameness or docility commanded by white racism instead of those of the native's "wildness" commanded colonially in opposites, and mongrel Leopard Dog upsets on Griffin's behalf all the binary syllogisms undergirding social systems. Jeremiah 13:23 famously asks, "Can the Ethiopian change his skin, or the leopard his spots?" Of course; of course not. Leopard Dog correlates with Deidre Badejo's assessment that in Diaspora mythologies, the trickster, unlike its Yoruba predecessor, mediates in two worlds—the metaphysical and the terrestrial. Leopard Dog's worldly contradictions of class and race and its spiritual doubleness of life and death seem to invite a kind of cross-traffic among these spheres of activity. Moreover, the association of dogs with death and raw instinct in black southern music and lore implicates the Leopard Dog with Griffin's roots: half-dead, half-ascendant. Humorously—Taussig's Peru.
Mountain Goat, a scavenger-survivor (like a root doctor), displays the bodily crags and fissures of the mountains. His hardheadedness and durability, as required by habitation on the margins of the inhabited world (like Griffin), conjures a reward—his head sprouts a wizard's hat—which suggests a connection between the rites of survival in antagonistic climes and the gradual acquisition of wizardry "tricks": magic as a kind of bunion rubbed up by long-term social and political discomfort.
Deadly atavistic spots of leopard or jaguar bloom from Siamese Cat. The cat crouches on what appears upon close viewing to be a bloody spike or dagger. In another play upon the idea of the leopard (leopards, incidentally, being a royal symbol in many African cultures), Leopard Dog is the starving, emaciated but irrepressible New World cur, part royalty, part pet, yet without master or self-mastery. Griffin's art is not one of mere opposites but of extreme almost bluesily—this is the alter ego of the forever-both-and-in-between: half-dog, half-cat. Leopard Dog may be the prophecy of royalty to come in the next world; it may be the failure of that promise; Griffin's art wants to be both.
Griffin clothed all these figures in specialized garments, especially hats, that speak of the wearers' literal and figurative identities. Panama Jack is a veritable Rosetta Stone for Griffin's sensibility. The figure's neck is broken; he bleeds from collar and wrist. His "hat," the proud, sporty Panama, betrayed a self-worth and ambition that provoked his being lynched.
Griffin sewed his haint-blue cloth into a baseball uniform for Southpaw. Southpaw, the colloquialism for a left-handed baseball pitcher (the most feared type at the position), plays off the nearly universal association of left-handedness with unpredictable powers. Southpaw holds his trick pitch behind his back. Griffin also had what he called a lucky hand. "Gimme the hand," peers used to ask of him when they needed good luck. "I've got the lucky hand, had it all my life," he related, but he always added that he was ill at ease with the "hand" (also a traditional African American term for charm) and only wanted to use his abilities for positive effect. No doubt most every outsider who passed by Griffin or his house also swung and missed, failing to see the true nature of the baseball player on the front yard or the Southpaw that owned the place.