First published: Winter 2021/22
“I’m not a carver; I’m a storyteller,” says Edwin Jeffery, Jr. Half of his woodcarvings relate to the African-American struggle for civil rights. He admits that some of the work is provocative. He wants to make people think. Much of his other art reflects his Christian faith and his pride in African-American achievements.
Jeffery with carvings of Ray Charles and Isaac Hayes, photo: Ted Degener
Jeffery was born in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1949. His mother was a caregiver and domestic worker. His father was a carpenter. When Jeffery was 18 months old, his parents separated, and he and one of his sisters moved in with their retired paternal grandparents. “We lived right across from the garbage dump,” he says. They had to keep the windows and doors closed during the summer months because of the strong odour.
From a young age, Jeffery was interested in the arts and showed creative talent. He wrote a modern version of Macbeth in high school, played in the school band, and won several awards for his poetry. Most of his education was at all-Black schools but, in his senior year, he was one of 30 Black pupils sent to a formerly all-white high school. “I loved going to Southside,” he says. “They treated me nice.”
From Slavery to the White House, 2020, oak plywood and paint, 48 x 24 x 2 in. / 122 x 61 x 5 cm, photo: Jelanie Watkins
He joined the school’s Reserve Officers’ Training Corp (ROTC). The programme had white sponsors who would march with the ROTC officers in parades. When Jeffery and one of his Black friends were promoted to officers, the sponsorship programme ended.
On March 28, 1968, Jeffery joined a march organised by Dr Martin Luther King, Jr in protest of the city’s treatment of Black refuse collectors. The event was meant to be peaceful but, when Jeffery rounded a corner, he saw that violence had broken out. He was tear gassed and beaten by police. Fearing for his life, he managed to escape. A week later, on April 4, 1968, King was assassinated at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis. Jeffery remembers crying with sorrow and anger.
by MARGARET DAY ALLEN
This is an article extract; read the full article in Raw Vision #109