In the book Chocolate Cities: The Black Map of American Life, Dallas is categorized as a “chocolate city,” a sociologist’s descriptor for the artistic and cultural productions of a city’s Black communities. Authors Marcus Anthony Hunter and Zandria F. Robinson describe these as ”the sights and sounds of Black art and oppression, and the container for the combined ingredients of pain, play, pleasure and protest that comprise the Black experience.”
To classify Dallas as a chocolate city is inherently political. It acknowledges the many freedman’s towns that have been paved over across the city. It is a conscious awareness of the increasing displacement of Black communities and a recognition of the silent violence that occurs when public agencies take land to create new neighborhoods, freeways, or parks.
Dallas-based artist Jammie Holmes has produced a billboard that is a larger version of his “I’VE SEEN IT ALL” machine and hand embroidered linen flag series. It features a pair of eyes that gaze out upon Uptown, which was once home to both Little Mexico and the freedman’s town known as Short North Dallas.
Though he moved here about five years ago, Dallas is familiar to the Louisiana native. As a child, Holmes spent summers in Oak Cliff with extended family. The predominantly Black neighborhood reminded him of Thibodaux, his hometown. “I come from a true life slave town,” says the visual artist. His hometown was the place of what he calls “the first labor massacre, and biggest in the world.” Smithsonian Magazine characterized the violent event as the “end of unionized farm labor in the South for decades.” These are Holmes’ origins, which inform the social, cultural, and political themes seen in his contemporary paintings. They pay homage to “Black families” in the Deep South.
Faith, tradition, and ritual are evident in his paintings. Recreations of Southern baptism, Black woman church elders, caskets, and preachers are frequently depicted in his painted works. His art is the physical creation of a story often experienced but not always told. In a sense, he paints from the experiences in his mind. Like a writer putting pen to paper, his is a selection of communal experiences for the world to see.
Last year, the visual artist released a series of “aerial demonstrations” in response to George Floyd throughout cities in the United States. In bold red lettering, a banner that read “MY NECK HURTS” grazed across the Dallas skies to remind the city about police misconduct, an inhumane experience he himself has experienced. The sky was an open, public canvas for Holmes’ political statements.
Likewise, this new work uses the public sphere. At night, the billboard’s eyes are an overseer, a pair of Black eyes that watch the destruction of its beloved chocolate city. It’s bittersweet in a sense, like how the first harsh, unsweetened bite of dark chocolate turns some away from the rest of the bar. Others relish in this flavor, a paradoxical sensory experience of something that appears sweet but tastes bitter.
When looking up at Holmes’ billboard, one can imagine a passive bystander with a pair of Black eyes watching them, serving as an omnipresent reminder of the city that was. To others, it reminds them of their ancestral connection to Dallas, one whose forefathers built freedman’s towns along the rivers and floodwaters to create their own homes.
Similar to the bespectacled eyes on the billboard in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, Holmes’ recent work reminds us of the main and supporting characters in the city’s story that have been written—and pushed—out of it.
Holmes chatted with D about the billboard’s presence in Dallas and his efforts to support the city’s Black communities.
I grew up in Black Dallas: The State Fair Classic, Sweet Georgia Brown, all of those cultural events. I tell people all the time that Dallas is a Black city and they don’t believe me. When I moved back, I was shocked to see the destruction of my childhood spaces and memories. Which made me so happy to see your billboard because it reminded me of the experiences I (and so many others) have lost. I put that flag up just for Dallas to know don’t forget about us. We’re still here. We’re still watching, and you need to be watching us. That’s why I did that. It was important for me to use my platform to wake people up and see things how we see things. Dallas is really separate. It’s divided in so many classes, races, and you just don’t see it. But you see it at the time.
The city is segregated. I often tell people many Dallases exist within the city itself. It is. Go to Highland Park. Go to Uptown. Go to Deep Ellum. That’s what sparked the idea with the flag. When I started traveling more. I went to Detroit and I saw how young and Black the city is. I loved the way it feels. Dallas is not like this. When I was in Harlem, it was so Black. I love that because I saw fine artists, writers like yourself. It was important for me to use my platform to tell the Black community that I’m with y’all. That I have your back. Because, first, I am a Black man, before I am an artist.
Deep Ellum resides on one of the first freedman’s towns in Dallas. At this moment, they are people who see people partying on their family’s land. I empathize with your previous statements about legacy and connection to land. It reminded me of a conversation I had with a colleague about gun violence, compared to violence of gentrification in Deep Ellum. They don’t understand it. They don’t get that part. My goal as an artist is to educate people because the division is already bad. I’m not here to create more division. If we’re going to continue this routine, we need to teach them how to respect us, how to love us. We’re going to show you how we love us and how we back each other. That’s what it’s all about, the unification of all the people and to have your people understand that I see you and I’m here for you.
I moved to Dallas in 2016. I’m new here. I want the Black community to understand, or any community that cares enough, I have your back. I’m going to do my best to support areas like South Dallas because my true goal is for people in the Black community to understand I’m reachable and grounded to the people that look like me. That’s what I represent for. That’s who I chose to make my life about.
When we think about politics, community organizing, and arts, people often reference cities like New York, Philadelphia, Los Angeles. I think about the way those cities have invested in their Black culture. Atlanta wouldn’t be a cultural pioneer without their Black communities. In Dallas, I plead for the city to invest in Oak Cliff and South Dallas. Erykah Badu, one of the major creative artists we have is from South Dallas. That’s what I want to see. I want people uplifting us, recognizing us, and not making it a fad. I want people to respect us for our craft and not because it’s all Mr. Black Guy. I genuinely do it for the people. I want my art to soothe the people that understand. I want my art to educate the people who don’t know. That’s why the flag is so important. It serves an educational purpose and soothing for the Black people that wake up every morning, get dressed and wonder what’s next for us. Because we don’t know.