#BlackAugust 1640 Portrait of John Punch Born Cameroon, Africa John Punch was an African indentured servant who lived in seventeenth-century colonial York County, Virginia. In 1640, he was bound as a servant for life as punishment for having tried to escape from his indenture. Some genealogists and historians describe Punch as "the first African documented to be enslaved for life in what would eventually become the United States. In this disarming three-quarter portrait, the hulking figure of John Punch seemingly sways to the left against a black background. He is clad in a bulky tunic with an upright white collar that offsets the intense blackness of his face. His arms are pulled behind his back, indicating that he is not a free man, yet he confronts the viewer with a stare emanating from narrowed eyes. An errant lock of hair pulls to the far left of the frame. A red band runs across the top of the painting—the sole injection of bright color in this dark picture.
Punch is regarded as the first African to spend his life in servitude in the United States. The date included in the title of the painting, 1646, represents the year that he was sentenced to a lifetime of slavery by a State court.Punch's male descendants became known by the surname Bunch, which is very rare among colonial families. Before 1640, there were fewer than 100 African men in Virginia, and John Punch was the only one with a surname similar to it. The Bunch descendants were free people of color who became successful landowners in Virginia and eventually assimilated as white, according to generations of marrying white.
A man referred to by researchers as John Bunch III, in September 1705 petitioned the General Court of Virginia for permission to publish banns for his marriage to Sarah Slayden, a white woman. Their minister had refused to do so. (There had been a ban on marriages between Negroes and whites, but Bunch posed a challenge, as he was apparently the son of a white woman, with only a degree of African ancestry. At the time, mulatto meant a person of half Negro and half white ancestry.) John Bunch III appealed the denial to the General Court of Virginia. The decision of the Court is unknown. However, in October 1705 the General Court of Virginia issued a statute defining as "mulatto" someone who was a "child, grandchild, or great-grandchild of a black or Native American." Persons of less than one-eighth African or Native American ancestry were considered legally white, a looser definition than the later, twentieth-century "one-drop rule" incorporated into Virginia law in 1924. Punch is one of several historical black figures that the contemporary artist Kerry James Marshall has memorialized as part of a larger effort to break up the supremacy of white figures on the walls of art museums. For Marshall, the fact that museums are dominated by portraits, history paintings and genre scenes picturing white people is evidence that painting is hardly a finished, outmoded media.
In addition to his critique of the over-representation of white subjects, Marshall uses paintings like this to highlight other ways that the revered styles and schools of the Western art canon have privileged whiteness For instance, Marshall takes on Malevich’s white on white Suprematist Painting, proving that black paint has just as much potential for finely hewn gradations. In the Punch portrait, black skin is distinct from black hair which is distinct from a black background. Marshall’s body of work not only infuses the canon of Western art with a much needed constituency of blackness, it also challenges the assumption that whiteness is the norm rather than another racial category.