What statues say about race in America

What statues say about race in America

All Wars Memorial to Colored Soldiers and Sailors, sculpted by J. Otto Schweizer, 1934. Currently located on Landsdowne Drive near Memorial Hall (West side of Fairmount Park), Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA.

Daderot, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Thomas Jefferson, after a long stint in New York's City Hall, is about to get the heave-ho, courtesy of city council members long convinced the statesman, polymath and slaver had no place there. Cue the supporters and detractors of a man who played an outsized role in the creation of the United States, and in its original racial sins.

Statues have been all the rage in recent years. As in, literal rage. Whether being pulled from their pedestals, picketed, spray painted or protected. At least for a moment, those hunks of bronze looking out over a public park through sightless eyes, gesturing grandly at a state capitol, or standing in for whole generations of soldiers, have become standing battlegrounds, and the catalysts for heated history lessons taught on the fly.

When they are toppled, or tossed into the nearest river, a chorus of defenders rises to rend their garments, gnash their teeth and threaten a wholesale disappearance of historical memory because some old slave-owner, Ku Kluxer or segregationist isn't preserved forever in monumental scale to whisper to the passerby, in effect, "You must remember my name, but forget what I did."

Along with the Robert E. Lees, Stonewall Jacksons, even the Lincolns and Grants who've come in for spasmodic attacks and stout defense, countless other memorials and monuments continue to talk to us about who we were, ask us who we are and challenge us about who we want to be.

Statues are literally fixed, immovable, unchanging images in stone and metal. They offer few opportunities for reshaping, recreating, reimagining, to reflect contemporary realities. When circumstance presents us with the opportunity to rethink a memorial, in an unquestionably low-stakes context, are we ever ready to try something new?

Don't ask Louis J. Heintz. A 19th-century citizen of The Bronx, a brewer and streets commissioner, he has been standing quietly in Joyce Kilmer Park on the Grand Concourse, just a baseball's toss from Yankee Stadium, for over a century. A big deal over a century ago, Heintz likely doesn't mean much to the more than a hundred thousand mostly Black and Latino people who call the neighborhood home today.

The Grand Concourse hasn't had a great century. The broad boulevard championed by Commissioner Heintz represented aspiration and elegance to its striving early residents. That was before white flight, the wrecking ball and economic decline hollowed out The Bronx.

Through it all, the Streets Commissioner stood and watched what modern life dished out for the city's poorest borough, and along the way his memorial lost most of the allegorical figure of Fame, a woman standing at the base, lifting a palm frond in tribute. Eventually, just Fame's midsection remained. Her hands, arms, feet, and most notably her head, were lost to posterity.

Here, if we wanted it, was an opportunity. The Citywide Monuments Conservation Program, and the Parks Department, planned to restore fame to the largely forgotten Louis J. Heintz, by returning Fame to his memorial.

Here, the impulses of history, restoration and memory clash. Purists might bridle at the idea of giving the face of today's Bronx to a century-old allegorical figure. It would be lampooned as silly "wokeness," of political correctness run amok.

However, since we don't know what she looked like, the palette of possible faces was wide open! Thus restoration becomes a battle not of right vs. wrong, but right vs. right, and somebody was going to have to lose.

Should anachronistic rules of memorial art allow the past to bind the present and eternally bind the future? To be an "accurate" allegory of Fame, all the new head had to show was the face of a woman. Given that there are almost four billion women on the planet, it is hard to think of a design requirement broader than that.

There was no accurate depiction of Fame's original head. In all existing photographs, she has her back to the people of The Bronx, as she pays homage to the impassive Mr. Heintz. No matter how it was accomplished, putting a good 21st-century head on Fame's restored shoulders would be a pure act of imagination.

There was no requirement to create an exact replica, or obsess over how Pierre Feitu, a Frenchman born in the 19th century and sculpting in the 20th, thought "she" looked.

Since Commissioner Heintz took his place above the pedestal in 1909, the South Bronx has changed. New York City, to which The Bronx was back then still a fairly recent addition, has changed. And again — this cannot be stressed enough — Fame could look like anybody, and our conception of anybody might be allowed to change as well. As long as she paid tribute to the long-forgotten Heintz, Fame would do the job she was created to perform.

She will soon have new arms, new feet and a new head. Perhaps it won't be a surprise to learn it has already been decided that Fame will not look like the Black and brown people who call the Concourse section of The Bronx home.

With absolutely no obligation to soothe hurt feelings, meet established expectations or copy a known work of art, the new Fame will be obviously, famously an imaginary woman of European descent.

Circumstances had given the Parks Department, and the worthies who populate the various oversight boards and commissions an unusual chance to say, "We think allegories, as representations of ideas in human form, can look like all kinds of different human beings."

Non-white figures have been used in classic sculptural language to represent the Americas, Africa and Asia for centuries. Clutching tobacco plants, exotic birds on their shoulders or with a monkey in their laps, they have often been placed in service to represent the exotic, and faraway, paying tribute to conquerors from the other side of the world.

They just couldn't pull the trigger.

This challenges conservators, and commissions with an uncomfortable state of play. Even in the 21st century, does convention still require that virtues and praiseworthy concepts like Justice, Learning, or Charity must adopt the classical form of the allegory and be white people, now and forever? Will we insist the foreign, the primitive, the exotic are now and will always be festooned with earrings, feathers, ankle bells and tropical fruit?

Once Fame is again splayed at the feet of Louis Heintz, she will not challenge, provoke or even quietly inquire of the borough's passersby, "Pssst … Hey, if Fame is a woman, what does she look like?" If The Bronx's present paid tribute to its past and present, what could that, what should that, look like?

Off the top of my head, three women from The Bronx could have suggested the face of modern Fame for the modern Bronx; Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor, Jennifer Lopez, raised in Castle Hill, and Irene Cara, the Oscar-winning vocalist who starred in what movie again?

Oh yeah. Fame.

The implicit, whispered, conclusion is that imaginary figures are, most properly, people of European descent. Even in Black and brown places, Love, Prudence, Bounty, Learning, all have white faces. That conclusion has taken us to some strange places in the past.

While passing the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia on foot, I saw a memorial that had escaped my notice for years until that very moment, called the "All Wars Memorial to Colored Soldiers and Sailors." It was dedicated in 1934, and moved to a prominent place on the city's grand Franklin Boulevard, leading from City Hall to the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, in 1994.

I looked at the figures of fighting men who encircled the monument. Like the men of the famed Robert Gould Shaw Memorial in Boston, its figures looked like real people, rendered in bronze from actual Black men, rather than the artist J. Otto Schweizer's imagination of what generic Black men might look like. They are, in their early 20th-century uniforms, intent, dignified, solemn. They are looking toward an allegorical figure of Justice, and that's where the memorial gets really interesting.

Justice holds in her hands symbols for "Honor" and "Reward." At the back of the column are more allegorical figures, representing War, Liberty, Peace, and Plenty. The plaque below Justice reads, "Erected by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania in Honor of Her Colored Soldiers."

A quick check on my phone revealed it was dedicated in 1934, and, after all, pretty cool, right? The Great Migration had seen the growth of big African-American communities in Philadelphia, New York, Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland and elsewhere. This monument would not wash away the stains of the race riots at the end of the First World War that brought horrendous violence to Black neighborhoods, driven by white hatred and rage. This was Pennsylvania's "thank you" to men who served in the segregated armed services not only in the Great War, but in the American Revolution, Civil War, Indian Wars, Spanish American War and the Philippine Insurrection. American expressions of gratitude to its Black citizens was rare enough, and a welcome and unexpected thing in 1934.

The soldiers are, naturally, all Black men. The sailors, too. But Justice? She's white. You should not be surprised to learn War, Liberty, Peace, and Plenty are all white, too. I've heard countless emotional arguments launched in the last two years about whether such a thing as "white privilege" exists. When asked, I sometimes reply by noting that to the extent it exists, it largely consists of beliefs unspoken, and assumptions unconsciously made, which is why the very idea of such privilege drives white people a little crazy. If it helps, imagine it as an invisible map, an overlay, a pattern outlined on the tangible landscape that stretches out from your own two feet. Some things just "are."

In 1934, justice, liberty, peace, and plenty were still strictly aspirations for most Black Americans. They had made war in the name of a country that promised they would have as good a shot at plenty as any other American, but too often was reluctant to follow through. Did the sculptor, a Swiss immigrant to the United States, ever think of Plenty as a woman who might have full lips, or a tight curl in her hair? Could Peace have the almond eyes and broad nose of a bronze head from Benin? Schweizer, born in Zurich during the Civil War, came to the US in his 30s, and won his reputation in the US sculpting war memorials, including seven on the Gettysburg battlefield alone.

Let's remember, an allegorical figure on a street in a big American city is purely a work of imagination. There was never an actual person "Peace," or "Liberty." In the visual language of the allegorical, these ideas could be rendered as any kind of woman. As long as "Plenty"'s playing the part, her ribs aren't poking out, or her sunken cheeks and hollowed eyes telling the opposite story, any well-fed woman will do.

In Philadelphia, in 1934, however, even imaginary women could not command too much imagination. Allegories, even those invented to honor Black men in uniform, were going to be white, even rendered in dark bronze. Were they made identifiably people of African descent, would it have been too much to bear for Philadelphia's then 2 million souls?

Today more black people live in Philadelphia than white ones. The war memorial seems a cultural relic, of a time now almost 90 years gone, when neither the sculptor, nor the commissioning sponsors could have imagined Black men fighting to protect a "Liberty" that had a face like theirs. At the same time, bronze is permanent. The mythical ladies on Franklin Boulevard will likely keep the faces they were born with, forever. And the "colored" soldiers and sailors will have to silently contemplate the promise of Justice, coming from the generous hands of a white person, forever.

Most Americans told the US Census Bureau last year they are white. But non-Hispanic whites as a share of America's overall population, and as an absolute number, declined over the last ten years. You may feel you have plenty on your plate already. In a browning America, you now have to add to the wealth gap, the wage gap, the education gap, the "statuary gap." That last one may be the hardest one of all to close.

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