Photography – Will Jacks, Po’ Monkey’s: Portrait of a Juke Joint
Will Jacks, a Cleveland native, is winner in Photography for Po’ Monkey’s: Portrait of a Juke Joint, published by University Press of Mississippi. Jacks spent ten years patronizing and photographing scenes from the last rural juke joint in the state, owned and run for over fifty years by Willie Seaberry who died in 2016. Begun as a place for farm workers to gather, it soon drew travelers and blues purists from all over the world. His book contains over seventy black-and-white photographs and an essay by award-winning writer Boyce Upholt. Jacks said, “I went in search of a story, but what I found was so much more. I found a home. I found friendships, and I found the most unexpected mentor. Willie Seaberry, known to most as Po’ Monkey, was one of my greatest teachers.” Jacks received a BA degree from Millsaps College. After receiving a graduate degree in journalism from the University of Mississippi, he opened a photography studio in Cleveland and taught at Delta State University and the University of Mississippi. In 2013 Time magazine recognized his Eudora Welty exhibit in his regional photo gallery as one of the top thirty ways in the world to experience photography offline. In 2020 he received an MFA degree from the Maine College of Art. Jacks isproject manager for the Mississippi Delta National Heritage Area at the Delta Center for Culture and Learning, Delta State University. Recipient’s remarks: Thank you to the Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters for this recognition. I am honored and humbled. Thank you to the many patrons that visited Po’ Monkey’s over the years and invited me to witness and share a piece of their lives. Thank you to my family for your love and support, particularly to my mother and father who provided me so many opportunities that are not often afforded others. I am lucky to be in the family I am in, and I am grateful for each of you. Thank you to the Hiters and the Seaberries. Thank you to Eula Mae Drake. And thank you to Willie Seaberry. You were always generous. You were an amazing teacher. I hope this work honors you appropriately. I also want to clear up a discrepancy in my bio: I do not hold a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Mississippi. I did study there and completed all course work but my thesis remains. This book is intended to be that thesis, but I have not been awarded the degree at this point. I am proud of this work. I am glad I began it over ten years ago, and I am glad this documentation exists. It is needed. But I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge one of the truisms of this book and of this MIAL award: we are honoring yet another white man who is being celebrated for his work documenting a predominantly black experience. That is extremely problematic, and we are seeing the tension of this problem play out more and more each day in the form of protests, movements such as Black Lives Matter, and the demand for change in our police system. Being a photographer is a privilege. Being an artist is a luxury. There is little money to be made in this profession and as such there are extremely limited paths for upward mobility and for generational wealth building. Yet, our culture would shrivel into mindless apathies without the social reflection that is provided by our artists. These thinkers and makers and doers are the consciousness of society reminding the world that growth and change are not only necessary, they are inevitable. We need an abundance of these reminders, and we need an abundance of visions describing new ways of living together. We must learn how to build a different society than the one we were taught to inhabit. This is true of all generations. Stagnant water grows mold. Only movement, circulation, cleansing and change keep an environment healthy. It is not acceptable for artistic voices to be from a singular positionality. It is not enough for us to deliberately seek the voices of nonwhite men, and it is not enough to live a life in which we treat everyone around us kindly. We must act more boldly. We must rethink. We must rebuild. We cannot simply patch and re-patch this wound born of a nation based on lofty ideals but built by enslaved labor. Like rotten joists in a grand home, we must rip everything away until we reach the foundation and this time rebuild with more knowledge, richer understanding, and the acknowledgment that we got some things wrong the first time. We must enable and empower people of color, our LGBTQ friends, and other socially marginalized individuals—those seeking a better life in this country. We must share. We must sacrifice. We must listen. We must accept that we are not always right and others are not always wrong, and we must be deliberate in our efforts to learn from those that are different from us. We must emphasize the importance of critical thought in our education and reward it in real financial ways. Critical thought done well means deep consideration and study, not flippant opposition. The greatest gift any of us can give one another is deep consideration, even when it is uncomfortable to hear; especially when it is uncomfortable to hear. Documentary work is best not when it simply preserves what something looks like, but when it fosters deep consideration of uncomfortable truths. So, I am honored, and I am thankful that my work was selected for this recognition. I must be clear, though: this work is not just about preserving the appearance of Willie Seaberry and his Thursday night juke. It is about a man who persevered inside a system that was overwhelmingly stacked against him. We should celebrate Willie Seaberry, but we should not celebrate the world generating the forces that created his juke joint. We do a disservice if the only thing we learn from Po’ Monkey’s Lounge is that folks from all over the world gathered weekly to dance, smile, and retreat from reality for a few hours. For make no mistake, on Friday mornings, after the dancing and drinking and laughter of Willie’s Thursday night party had subsided, reality remained, and the America we are witnessing today continued to fester. Words and pictures are not enough. We must examine the core of our foundation, and root out all that is antithetical to our nation’s claim of “liberty and justice for all.” We must act, even if that action is stepping aside so that others can lead. Releasing control is never easy. It is frightening, but is necessary if we are to fulfill the words so often espoused about our nation. Again, thank you all. And to Willie. May we act wisely upon the lessons he gifted us.
Of the selection of Jacks’s work for the Photography award, Judge Jim Ramer said, “I must admit, when I received this book, I was skeptical at first as to what I would find on its pages, given the complexity of the Delta’s history and politics. As I looked closely at the images, I found Jacks’s love and care for the subject in its fullness. What emerged from the images were the sounds of revelry, the faces of a community rich with life, and in the details of the walls and surfaces a conduit to history; a reminder of times good and bad. At the core of the work are the portraits of the proprietor and life of the party, Mr. Willie Seaberry. In the images we see a complex character playing multiple roles as host, counselor, patriarch, keeper of the culture, businessman, entertainer, witness to history and bridge builder. Altogether they portray a complex portrait of a man who fully embraced his times. Jacks’s long-term project is substantial and achieves meaningfulness. It masterfully preserves a time and speaks to us about a past as we move toward the future. Congratulations to Mr. Will Jacks on an outstanding book.” Jim Ramer is an artist, curator, and educator. His work spans photography, video, sculpture, and installation. He currently serves as an associate professor and director of the MFA in Photography program at Parsons School of Design in New York City.