Women's International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF)

Thursday, April 30, 2009

What are the statues in Washington D.C. telling the next generation?

Walking through the historic places of our nation's capital for the past week has been an eye-opening experience in many ways. It was the first time I had a chance to do so as a discerning adult, and what I saw was very different from what I remembered from childhood. My memories from earlier visits included pride, and beauty, and valor. My experience last week was overwhelmingly shame and anger, as I perceived the relentless paternalism, racism, and militarism of iconic public art.

My first shock came while walking through Lincoln Park, near the William Penn House where we were staying. The Emancipation Statue, the centerpiece of the park, is a study in racism. Lincoln's facial expression is pure patronizing self-satisfaction. He holds a look of concern, but does not deign to look directly at the figure of Arthur Alexander - the last slave to be captured under the Fugitive Slave Act, and as a resident of Missouri not freed by the Emancipation Proclamation - instead gesturing vaguely as if to pat the kneeling Alexander on the head. Alexander, in contrast, is portrayed as a blind animal, shackled and half-naked. His eyes are blank, and he seems to grope his way forward, entirely dependent on the guidance of his "benefactor." It also, apparently, barely looked like him.
The tragedy of this portrayal is the fact that this statue was funded entirely through donations by freed slaves, to honor Lincoln - the first five dollars for the statue were donated by Charlotte Scott, through her former master. However, the fundraising was run by white people, from the Western Sanitary Commission in St. Louis, and it was designed and sculpted by Thomas Ball, a white man so racist he refused to use an African model in designing the statue. Frederick Douglass spoke at it's dedication ceremony, stating clearly that the statue "showed the Negro on his knees when a more manly attitude would have been indicative of freedom." This comment, incidentally, was not reported at the time in any of the newspapers.

This is just one example of the "historic" and "iconic" images I found peppering our nation's capital. Yuck. Justice would be better served by tearing the thing down.


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