This Painting of Jesse Jackson as a White Man Provoked a Sledgehammer Attack

Alina Cohen
Nov 7, 2018 7:19PM

David Hammons, How Ya Like Me Now?, 1988. © David Hammons. Photo by Tim Nighswander/ Courtesy of Glenstone Museum, Potomac, Maryland.

Perhaps more than any other midterm race this year, Georgia’s gubernatorial contest between the Republican Brian Kemp and his challenger, Democrat Stacey Abrams, exposed just how much racism still pervades our electoral system. In addition to statewide voter suppression issues, a white supremacist group issued racist robocalls against Abrams—the country’s first major-party black female candidate for governor. To what degree did the candidates’ race influence the outcome—still undecided, as of publication—of yesterday’s election? It’s an uncomfortable question, forcing us to consider the prejudices (both structural and personal) that still influence who the country votes for, and why.

Artist David Hammons, never one to shy away from dicey issues, addressed such American electoral quandaries with his 1988 artwork How Ya Like Me Now? Created for the nonprofit organization Washington Project for the Arts (WPA), the 14-by-14-foot painting (first installed at a downtown parking lot in Washington, D.C.) portrayed Jesse Jackson—an African-American preacher and two-time presidential candidate—as a Caucasian man with white skin, blonde hair, and blue eyes. Across the bottom, Hammons spray-painted the artwork’s provocative title. The depiction created furor in the nation’s capital: A group of about 10 locals smashed it with sledgehammers before WPA staff could finish mounting the work. Hammons integrated the attendant anger into subsequent iterations of his piece.


Jackson was very much on the country’s mind when Hammons received his commission, part of WPA’s fall 1989 exhibition, “The Blues Esthetic: Black Culture and Modernism.” With the show, organizer Rick Powell (WPA’s co-director at the time) hoped to explore blues musicians’ influence on modern artists. Other contributions included a 1966 Diane Arbus photograph of musician James Brown and a 1964 Romare Bearden collage, Sermons: The Walls of Jericho, which jumbled pictures of weaponry and African masks. Hammons’s artwork was tenuously connected to the theme: The title derives from the refrain of a 1987 hip-hop track by Kool Moe Dee.

The title also gives Hammons’s work a brazen edge that’s quite fitting for its subject. Jackson got his political start in the fight for civil rights, working alongside Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. After King’s 1968 assassination, Jackson formed Operation PUSH (People United to Save Humanity), which supported inner-city students and employment initiatives for African-Americans. Throughout the 1970s and ’80s, Jackson became a prominent figure in the news, renowned both for his work with PUSH and his rousing rhetorical style. He imbued his speech, as Joyce Purnick and Michael Oreskes wrote in a 1987 New York Times profile, with “a dramatic, almost messianic fervor.” In 1984, he founded the National Rainbow Coalition, which promoted gay rights, in addition to gender and racial equity.

In 1984 and 1988, Jackson ran for the Democratic presidential nomination. (Interestingly, Purnick and Oreskes quote David Axelrod as saying about Jackson, “He’s got an enormous innate sense of the media.” Decades later, Axelrod served as the chief strategist on Barack Obama’s presidential campaign.) Jackson lost the campaigns to Walter Mondale and Michael Dukakis, respectively. In 1984, one campaign advisor criticized media attention in the New York Times, stating that journalists had offered a racist and narrow portrait of Jackson as a “one-dimensional preacher with a mouth.”

David Hammons, Higher Goals, 1986. Photo by Pinkney Herbert / Jennifer Secor. Courtesy of Public Art Fund, NY.

Jackson was a perfect subject for Hammons, who already had a history of creating provocative artwork about racial prejudice. Throughout the 1970s, he incorporated images of spades into his paintings, prints, and sculptures. “Spade,” of course, had long been a racist epithet; Hammons manipulated the symbol to reclaim the word for himself and his oeuvre. The sculpture Spade with Chains (1973) (in which real chains thread through a real spade) eerily links the term to the history of slavery.

As part of a 1986 project for Public Art Fund entitled Higher Goals, Hammons mounted basketball hoops onto Brooklyn telephone poles and adorned them with over 10,000 bottle caps. Between 20 and 30 feet high, the hoops were clearly dunk-proof. “It’s an anti-basketball sculpture,” he once said, according to a 2011 book by Dr. Kellie Jones and poet Amiri Baraka. “Basketball has become a problem in the black community because kids aren’t getting an education. They’re pawns in someone else’s game.” The work advocated “higher goals” for black youth than playing basketball.

With How Ya Like Me Now?, Hammons offered an ironic take on a prominent black figure, critiquing popular perceptions about him—and not (according to the elusive, press-shy Hammons) deriding Jackson himself. Yet the artist’s stance wasn’t clear to local passersby. A group of men began yelling at the WPA members mounting the work, then smashed it with a sledgehammer the team had been using. They believed that the painting itself was racist.

Ari Marcopoulos
David Hammons
Alternate Projects

Powell told the Washington Post that he was devastated by the destruction (the journalist, Elizabeth Kastor, notes that Powell is black, as were the vandals). Powell told Kastor that Hammons’s work asks “a simple yet profound question to viewers: Are our likes, dislikes and expectations of people based on their race?” How would Jackson have fared in the media, and our elections, if he was white? If the vandals’ anger was misdirected, it was still indicative of nationwide angst about this eternally fraught topic.

Frank Watkins, communications director for the Rainbow Coalition, offered a statement on behalf of Jackson. “This particular artist gave artistic expression to…what African American people have had to live with,” he said (according to a second Kastor article), “and that is if Jackson were white, he would be president.…Apparently, the pain of that kind exploded among some people, and that’s why the destruction took place.”

The vandals’ reaction, then, became crucial to the piece and its meaning. When Hammons mounts the piece now, he places a row of upside down sledgehammers before it. They separate the viewer from the artwork. As symbols of destruction, they honor the viewers’ anger with a reverential position in the art museum.

Alina Cohen