Can anyone stand in front of Picasso’s Guernica and not see the horror of war? Not have a visceral reaction to the impact on the community?
Can anyone stand in the gash in the ground that is Maya Lin’s Vietnam Memorial and not feel the loss, the pain, the division that war wrought?
“I imagined taking a knife and cutting into the earth, opening it up, an initial violence and pain that in time would heal.” Artist statement, Maya Lin.
Could anyone see Kara Walker’s 'A Subtlety, or the Marvelous Sugar Baby' at the Domino Plant and not feel the conflicting pulls of slavery, sugar trade and exploitation in our history? (A video visit)
What the above pieces have in common: strong points of view that draw visceral responses. They are art: “the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power.” In other words, evocative.
Memorials way too often seem to be the opposite.
Take this one.
The Lincoln Emancipating the Slave Statue, built in Frederick Douglas’s time, entirely financed by contributions from Black Freedmen (as the newly emancipated were called), mostly Black church women, 25 to 50 cents at a time, was at best then, a compromise. Lincoln stands towering in full dress, while a Black man, nearly naked, kneels at his feet, shackles and chains on his hands, signaling freedom given by the white emancipator. “A race set free and the country at peace,” reads the inscription. “Lincoln rests from his labors.” In maybe the fourth iteration of the design, the enslaved man was given some agency - the appearance that he has broken his own chain. But his posture is otherwise unchanged: subservient, supplicant, as if in gratitude. Frederick Douglas decried it even as it was unveiled, but also knew it was as much as we could hope to get at that time. It incorporates the assumptions and prejudices of its era, and is neither particularly beautiful nor suffused with emotional power.
And that is the trouble with “Memorials.” They are most often compromise monuments, sometimes to a person, sometimes to a concept, but rarely do they enter the realm of art. Chosen by political consensus, maybe only of a faction, or worse, special interest groups like the socialite lobbyist Daughters of the Confederacy, intended to honor an event, one aspect of a man, or enshrine a false narrative. And I say man, because the statues are almost invariably male. And yet in time, as we come to reckon with the full measure of the men so honored, suddenly they seem less appropriate “heroes”. For example: devise operations that save many women from the injuries of childbirth, and, heralded as the Father of Gynecology, you get a statue on 5th avenue in Manhattan. Decades later comes the reckoning, because you developed those operations by experimenting on enslaved Black women without anesthesia, and down you fall. Or consider the Theodore Roosevelt equestrian statue, below, commissioned by the Roosevelt Memorial Association in the 1930’s, which stood in front of the Museum of Natural History in New York City. It features Roosevelt on horseback, with an Indigenous and African man walking on either side of him. According to Fraser, the sculptor, “The two figures at [Roosevelt’s] side are guides symbolizing the continents of Africa and America, and if you choose may stand for Roosevelt’s friendliness to all races.”
In 2018 Mayor Bill de Blasio appointed a commission to review statues on city property. On this statue, opinion was divided, so the commission made no recommendation for removal. A dissenting commissioner noted: "height is power in public art", rendering the memorial an expression of "power and dominance". New York Times critic Holland Cotter also dissented: "It doesn’t require a sensitivity to subtexts to see that the composition, no matter how you gloss it, is quite literally an emblem of white-man-on-top."
After the 2018 controversy, The Museum of Natural History did mount an exhibit addressing the controversy, and placed a small plaque beside the statue itself. It was, however, dwarfed by the statue which was mounted on a huge pedestal, a problem likely to be encountered when attempting to add context to the multiplicity of controversial statues around the country.
The statue remained until last month, when, in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, the museum removed it.
Another approach was taken by Yale University. A residential College named after John C. Calhoun, a vice president and senator from South Carolina who defended slavery as a “necessary evil”, featured stain glass panels paying homage to his legacy, complete with slaves picking cotton in the communal dining room. Although a subject of student debate and protest for years, after a custodial services worker smashed the offending panel with a broom handle in 2017, the University renamed it The Grace Hopper College, after a computer scientist and US Navy Rear Admiral who obtained her Masters and PhD from Yale. And in 2020, Yale commissioned African American artist Barbara Earl Thomas to reimagine the stain glass panels, to confront and contextualize the history of the college’s name.
But, as our land is full of statues, with a nod to conventionalists, we should insure equal honor for the overlooked: women, minorities, martyrs, “others”. They are our history too, once one accepts that we are a nation of many peoples. It would take some national committees, not unlike McArthur Genius Grants, Pulitzer Prize or National Book Awards, though with gender, racial and demographic representation more akin to our population, with subcommittees in various disciplines, like science and technology, medical, arts, education, social justice etc. to establish a list of the deserving but unsung.
I could submit a (somewhat random) list (omitting those still living), by no means comprehensive, or scholarly, but simply a beginning, fairly heavy with those who fought for Blacks and Native Americans, lacking notables who fought other social justice and equality battles, great inventors, artists and educators among many others. (And unlike an optimal list, sadly, mine is not gender balanced.)
Benjamin Lay Quaker and early abolitionist 17th century
Joseph Cinque Leader of the Armistead Revolt
Olaudah Equiano writer whose first person narrative helped end British involvement in TransAtlantic slave trade
Elizabeth Freeman Bett The first enslaved African American to file and win a freedom suit in Massachusetts in 1781
John Brown abolitionist
Nat Turner abolitionist
Sojourner Truth abolitionist and women’s rights activist
Harriet Tubman abolitionist
Ota Benga Mbuti man purchased from slave traders and exhibited at the Lousiana Purchase Exposition and Bronx Zoo
Sara Baartman exhibited in 19th century freak shows as "Hottentot Venus"
William Lloyd Garrison Abolitionist, journalist, suffragist and social reformer
Dred Scott enslaved AA who unsuccessfully sued for his freedom
William Still abolitionist, Father of the Underground Railroad, author The Underground Railroad Records (1872), documenting lives of escaped enslaved.
James Still , brother of William, the first AA medical doctor and herbalist
Tecumseh Native American Shawnee warrior and chief
Crazy Horse Lakota War Hero (or how about we just fund the completion of his memorial)
Sitting Bull Hunkpapa Lakota leader
Geronimo Apache leader and medicine man
Nanyi-hi Nancy Ward Cherokee leader and Beloved Woman
Suzanne La Flesche First Native American physician and social reformer
Maria Tallchief Osage Nation member and America’s first Prima Ballerina
Wong Kim Ark American born Chinese citizen whose suit at Supreme Court established precedent for 14th amendment Birth Right Citizenship The Scottsboro Boys 9 African Americans falsely accused and convicted of raping 2 white women and their appeal attorney, Samuel Leibowitz
Claudette Colvin a Black nurse who, 9 months before Rosa Parks, refused to give up her seat to a white woman on a crowded, segregated bus
Thurgood Marshall first African American Supreme Court Justice
Diane Nash Civil Rights Movement leader and strategist
Shirley Chisholm 1st Black woman elected to US Congress
James Weldon Johnson writer and civil rights activist
Malcolm X human rights activist
Medgar Evers civil rights activist
Henry Hezekiah Dee and Charles Eddie Moore Mississippi Cold case Civil Rights activists, bodies unearthed in the search for below)
Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner
How many of these are household names or even known to you? And yet we all know names of Confederate traitors and those who engineered Native American genocide; this is both a travesty, and great failure of our collective educations.
And how about monuments to these places, groups, movements, concepts, ideals?
Igbo Landing, a site in Georgia, marking the site of an 1803 rebellion and mass suicide of a group of newly arrived enslaved Igbo people
Tomb of the Unknown Slaves
Tomb of the Unknown Native American Victims of Assault by US Govt Smallpox Blanket Distribution
Tomb of the Unknown Native American Victims of Genocide
The American Buffalo, exterminated in campaign of Native American Genocide
Women’s Suffrage and the 19th Amendment
Red Summer The Race Wars, including Black Wall Street
Victims of the NYC Draft Riots of 1863
Seneca Village settlement of free AA landowners in Manhattan destroyed by eminent domain to create Central Park
Science and Science Based education
Healthcare as a Human Right
A Monument to the Disappeared by Government Agents around the world
But back to honoring our history.
How about signs of homage on every building constructed by the enslaved and every industry founded on the exploitation of the enslaved (See Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II, by Douglas A. Blackmon ), Native populations or other minorities? And signs on all the highways and public works projects built by destroying minority neighborhoods?
Who and what else would you include? Latinx? Native American? Asian American? Jewish? Martyrs? Unappreciated leaders? Under appreciated movements or sacrifices?
We could and perhaps should all create lists, then ensure that at minimum, that our school curriculums include them.
But beyond erecting more statues and monuments, I submit, we must change our paradigm. We need to escape hero worship and the founding father myths, not necessarily to be replaced with heroines and the overlooked. Rather than statuary, graven memorials, capital letter stone and bronze monuments, we need art, soaring, inspired visions, and open spaces and odes to nature. We need reflective spaces and aspirational monuments. Monuments to Justice. Like Bryan Stevenson’s National Memorial for Peace and Justice, mentioned last week, “conceived with the hope of creating a sober, meaningful site where people can gather and reflect on America’s history of racial inequality.”
We need monuments to the principles of America. To the principles of Humanity, of Goodness and Light. To equality. To Freedom. To Truth. To Community. To sharing. To Creativity and Creation, whether art or children or landmarks. To Unity. To Life. To Humanity. To Nature. To our Natural World. To our Animal Brethren.
Let us create public spaces for contemplation, for celebrations of joy, of community, of love and of believing: living memorials to values, thoughts and ideas that will stand the test of time.
BONUS MATERIAL: An interesting coda to last week’s blog, don't miss this WaPo article on Virginia’s textbooks through the 1970’s, as well as VA’s “Massive Resistance”, the closing of Virginia public schools for up to 5 years rather than follow the Brown v Board of Education directive to integrate schools.