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.