DeRay Davis / Face Vessels

It is said that the first portrait was created by a Corinthian Maiden, who traced an outline of her lover’s silhouette onto a wall before he left to go abroad. She could not bear to be without her man, so she preserved his image in his absence. If this is when the first drawing was created, then portraits are about love and loss, about a reconciliation between presence and absence. And it’s really damn romantic. But let’s cut to thousands of years later, beyond paintings and sculptures of the human form and to the practice of photography. We have moved light years beyond the trace of our lover’s face to a photograph of their literal face, an exactitude unmatched by other media. The aura and prestige of portraiture became a science, where an image of a person is not about their beauty, but about their look.

Physiognomy, or the pseudo-scientific practice of using physical traits as proof of one’s character, existed prior to photography’s invention. But it was not nearly as structured a practice until photography, and Sir Francis Galton, made it a standard procedure. Galton created composite photographs of multiple subjects to blend their features into one image. Dozens of photographs of people with similar facial features would be lined up and compared in order to claim that because people had a similar feature they were from the same place geographically. Beyond identifying different ethnic groups, Galton hoped to use these photos to find specific looks for criminals, i.e “a burglar looks like this.” His research ultimately proved that there are no specific physical traits attached to any crimes, but we still invest time and interest in this sort of thinking. Racial profiling is an off-the-record security practice. Crime blotters, for example, are giving descriptions of physical characteristics of individuals who have allegedly committed crimes. When it is all said and done, descriptions such as “white, male, approximately six feet tall,” and the like do not narrow the search field down too much. We still use physiognomic language to describe people, especially ones we do not like. Have you ever heard someone call another person “creepy” looking? Now what does a “creep” look like, not attractive? Okay what does an “attractive” person look like? I’ll stop because that’s annoying and I think I have made my point.

DeRay Davis does necessarily not want us to profile people, he just wants us to have awareness. In his new special on Netflix “How to Act Black,” he shares his experiences growing up in Chicago. He and his friends would “play” guns before they actually had guns. He believes that gun laws should only be designed to keep guns away from bad people. Black, brown, or white isn’t a signifier of a bad person, we all just need to be aware of when something is a little bit off. 

Still from “DeRay Davis: How to Act Black,” 2017.

Davis admits that we all profile people, but profiling isn’t productive. We just need to be aware:

Look at a crazy motherfucker and know that he’s crazy. We can’t do that. We don’t want to be profiled. Black people hate being profiled. We’re profiled, and we don’t want to be profiled. We think everything’s because we’re black…Or racism. Everything’s racism or ISIS. No, no. Motherfuckers are just crazy. I don’t give a damn about racism. It doesn’t affect me, personally. People keep saying “Racism’s back” like racism left…We’ve been racist. Everybody’s racist. Some of you black people are racist…There’s jobs black people still don’t trust black people with…isn’t that crazy?…Pull up to the club, there’s a black valet driver. *groans* ‘I’m gonna park it myself, Leroy.’ ‘Leroy? My name ain’t no goddamn Leroy.’ ‘You look like a Leroy.’ Black people don’t trust black people that look like a black person they didn’t trust…’You look like my cousin. He be robbing and stealing. It’s in your face. Nothing against you’…But we need to profile the shit that’s fucked up. I like to call it the ‘shit-uations.’ We need to profile people that really separate shit. These murdering motherfuckers…I get it “Black Lives Matter” I’m here. I get it 2,000 percent. All lives matter, I hear you. Nobody wants to die. But, goddammit, awareness matters. Go back to being aware.

He uses real examples of mass shooting tragedies in the US, like the Charleston church shooting and the shooting at Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, but also describes imaginative scenarios that allow us to laugh without the twinge of reality. Kick somebody out of your pool party if they have a fur coat on, they don’t need to be wearing that. Stay away from the man see-sawing on the playground who is somehow see-sawing with himself. Basically, stay away from “crazy.”

So we know to stay away from people if they are acting in a suspicious manner, but how do we know when to stay away from things? Don’t touch leaves of threes because it might be poison ivy, oh and don’t eat yellow snow! And sure, don’t touch a hot stove and keep children away from pointy objects. Sometimes, though, it is not a matter of keeping ourselves away from bad things, but keeping bad things away from us.

If you have ever seen a gallery of ceramics in a museum, especially in the Southeastern US, you have probably seen a jug that looks like this:

“Face Vessel,” c. 1860-1870, Philadelphia Museum of Art (photo by Philadelphia Museum of Art,

This face jug contains molded glazed stoneware combined with unglazed earthenware to give distinct facial characteristics: wide eyes with a slight grin. Looking at this, it’s difficult to discern the kind of face I am looking at. Is he happy? Am I suppose to smile with him, or am I afraid? It is the kind of face that brings awareness, that makes you pause for seemingly no particular reason. I cannot tell if the “Face Vessel” wants to keep away from me or if I am supposed to keep away from it. And what do you know, the answer is both.

Growing up in North Carolina, I was always told that these jugs were invented in the Appalachians, designed to scare children away from jugs that have moonshine in them. Then when I was in the American Art wing of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, I see that these “Face Jugs” are described as most likely being produced by an enslaved potter in the South. Because I am who I am I searched the internet for a clear answer on the development of these face jugs, and of course there isn’t one, but it is widely believed that the first vessels like the one above were made by enslaved Africans, then later in the early twentieth century Appalachian southerners adopted this style for water and moonshine vessels.

The purpose and functions of these vessels, while not precise, give us insight into the way that African Americans were thinking about their loved ones. Many Africans, who had traditions in ancestor worship, were shipped to the Caribbean to be acclimated and there they adopted voodoo traditions. After some time in the states, slaves adopted Christianity as a religion as well. Thus, the combination of ancestor worship, voodoo, and Christianity led to a unique design in honoring the dead. They could not have gravestones, so they used face jugs that contained familiar features to mark the locations of their deceased. Not only this, but their faces were exaggerated and scary to ward off evil spirits in the afterlife. 

“Devil Face Jug,” Design attributed to David P. Brown of Brown Pottery, NC, c. 1923-1926, Philadelphia Museum of Art (photo by Philadelphia Museum of Art,

These jugs clearly have a combination of purposes, but they all resonate in the image of a group of people responding to their particular stake in life, creating a distinct facial image that builds upon their African identity to honor and protect their roots. So looking at these jugs, I see a double-edged sword to profiling: I see a group of persecuted people using the tools of physiognomy to assert and honor their identity, but I also see the afterlife of these multivalent objects roped into a genre that became “ugly.” Maybe this happened because people don’t trust people that look like people they don’t trust, right? So the faces and the jugs kept evolving into purely “ugly face jugs,” and white potters created jugs that even more exaggerated and even more grotesque later on in the early twentieth century. The jugs used to store moonshine, like this “Devil Face Jug,” became uglier to ward off children from its contents. Because no one should be drinking anything that is coming from the Devil. You should at least be aware of that. 

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