Let’s commission or buy more historic statues of Civil War or civil rights heroes. Good ones! Great ones!

One of the more complex and fraught cultural issues arising these days is the removal of (largely) Confederate statues. Some are being toppled and at least partly destroyed. I’m all for the long-overdue change in culture, in response to our urgent times. This need is no better addressed than in this recent Op-Ed by poet and author Caroline Randall Williams in The New York Times, powerfully underscored in a dark symbolism, dwelling in the statues’ heroic posturings. Here (via Daily Kos) is a link: NYT Op-Ed on Confederate statues

The Times headline defiantly declared “You Want a Confederate Monument? My Body is a Confederate Monument.”

Williams continued with the startling lead:

 I have rape-colored skin. My light-brown-blackness is a living testament to the rules, the practices, the causes of the Old South.

She went on to explain:

I am a black, Southern woman, and of my immediate white male ancestors, all of them were rapists…

Poet and author Caroline Randall Williams wrote a scathing commentary recently on the dark underbelly of Confederate statues for The New York Times. Courtesy Nashville Scene.

Amen to that. However, I’m also in the camp of those who think Confederate statues should be moved to museums, and submitted to proper historical contextualization and commentary. And partly given my undergrad degree was in art, with a concentration on sculpture, I have a bias towards preserving public art of historical significance, the good, bad and sometimes even the ugly..

The issue reached a razor’s edge that bled into the absurd recently in Madison, Wisconsin, where I lived and worked for nearly 20 years, as an arts reporter for The Capital Times. So I was greatly saddened see that Wisconsin’s “foreword” statue, long situated on the Capitol Square, was knocked over, and thrown in Lake Mendota. And that the statue of renowned abolitionist and union soldier Hans Christian Heg – a Norwegian immigrant who knew the meaning of being an other, and who died fighting to end slavery – was knocked down and dragged down the street. These were acts of little more than self-righteous ignorance, or worse, perhaps racist subversion.

Several of my friends suspect this was the handiwork of a Neo-Nazis or White Supremacists infiltrating the Madison George Floyd civil rights protests. As one friend shrewdly observed, the guilty party scrawled the phrase “BLACK IS BEAUTIFUL” at the top of the deposed Heg sculpture’s base (see below). Here’s the thing. That phrase hasn’t been used by most African-Americans since the 1960s. It suggests this was a bogus and culturally lame attempt to place the blame on Black Lives Matter.

Base of the statue of abolitionist Hans Christian Heg in Madison, after the statue was torn down recently. Photo by Allison Garfield. Courtesy Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel.

On a related issue, I cannot agree with student activists who call for the removal of the beloved statue of a seated Abraham Lincoln, at the top of Bascom Hill on the UW-Madison campus. The bronze sculpture mirrors the grand marble sculpture of our 16th president seated in The Lincoln Memorial.

The controversy has to do with what we now call white supremacist comments that Lincoln made before the Civil War during the famous debates with Stephen Douglas. Yes, they are troubling, but history shows that Lincoln redeemed himself through his actions many times over, and indeed was a martyr for the cause of ending slavery. He  inspired Juneteenth Day with his Emancipation Proclamation, which freed all slaves.

Such a leader should be judged by his actions, and such formal proclamations that carry great political weight, rather than by his worst comments, which reveal his racial biases (which we all have, to some degree). Remember too, it was the 1850s, upon which we can misapply our social standards begat by time. We know Lincoln realized that even he struggled at times to stay aligned with the better angels of his nature. And that he always considered slavery immoral and worth destroying with all the Union’s might.

As for what to do about politically historical statues in general, I prefer to think more constructively. If we replace Confederate statues, what should we commission or construct in their stead?

The issue of how to replace them was addressed creatively by six artists in a 2018 New York Times article, when the controversy over a Robert E. Lee statue arose in connection to the infamous Charlottesville clash of civil rights and white supremacists: The New York Times, Aug. 10, 2018, “Monuments for a New Era.”

 

But Madison and other cities could follow the example of Milwaukee, which last December purchased a bronze sculpture by the acclaimed black sculptor Radcliffe Bailey depicting W.E.B. DuBois, the great black writer, thinker, sociologist and civil rights activist. 1 The sculpture, titled “Pensive,” depicts DuBois seated in the same posture as Auguste Rodin’s celebrated “The Thinker,” and even mimics the early modernist Rodin’s rough-hewn modeling. The work was purchased as a gift to the city by Sue and Mark Irgens, and mounted this spring in its new location outside of the new BMO Tower, 790 N. Water St.

Radcliffe Bailey, Pensive, 2013, part of Sculpture Milwaukee 2019. © Radcliffe Bailey, Courtesy the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York. Photo by Kevin J. Miyazaki for Sculpture Milwaukee

Milwaukee first experienced the quiet but indeed pensive power of the bronze figure in the 2019 MKE Sculpture exhibit mounted along Wisconsin Avenue. For me, it was the outstanding work in the exhibit, artistically and culturally, and I spotlit it in a blog posting, here:

Bronze sculpture of W.E.B. DuBois is highlight of Sculpture Milwaukee

The work’s conceptual lineage is deep, as Rodin’s original “The Thinker” depicted poet Dante Aligieri’s figure, drawing from the poet’s The Divine Comedy, and conceived as a figure contemplating Rodin’s massive tableaux sculpture, The Gates of Hell commissioned in 1880. The symbolic significance of the tableaux is not lost on our times, nor on DuBois’s, when he boldly stirred American consciousness on matters of race in the early 20th century, directly defying Jim Crow.

But the first of Rodin’s familiar monumental bronze castings of “The Thinker,” as a stand-alone sculpture, did not appear until 1904.

Works such as Bailey’s, completely in 2013, ought to be the standard we strive for in public art, especially on fraught matters as race relations or the Civil War. I would love to see Madison commission or purchase a monument to, say, the epic ex-slave biographer and leader Frederick Douglass, or the heroic Underground Railroad operator Harriet Tubman, or modern civil rights pioneer Rosa Parks. Or even a work commemorating the death of Emmett Till, which sparked the modern civil rights movement, sensitive as such a rendering might be.

We are in a time of extraordinary social upheaval and transformation, which may feel to too transitory for doubters of social progress. Still, I can think of few better ways we can celebrate such progress and permanently inspire its furtherance, than with bronze public sculptures that embody our history’s embattled nobility and, we pray, our future redemption in freedom and equality for all.

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1 News of the sculpture’s purchase, gifting and re-installation, as reported by Bobby Tanzilo of OnMilwaukee.com: https://onmilwaukee.com/ent/articles/irgens-pensive.html

“I can breathe” means I can write, about love in a time of angry protest

A protest march, including the author, against police brutality moves through Whitefish Bay Saturday. Photo for Shepherd Express by Tea Krulos

On Sunday morning, I wrote a commentary piece on the police brutality protest march I had participated in the day before.  The march had special meaning to me because it’s the first one of the current marches I know of that penetrated Shorewood, the nearby suburb where I grew up from my adolescence, and on into Whitefish Bay, engulfing the main thoroughfares of both municipalities.

What struck me first was the fact that I, in fact, could breathe — at the first protest march I’d partook of since the coronavirus, considering I’m quite at risk in my 60s and suffer from asthma. I thought the phrase  “I can breathe,” mirroring George Floyd’s, might be a headline phrase when I decided to submit it to the Shepherd Express, which accepted and published it yesterday in their online edition 1

Express editor David Luhrssen decided that a theme within the piece was a more striking headline, and I think he was right (I combine both ideas in my headline here). After seeing a protester wearing a red cap with the phrase, “Make America love again,” I pondered whether John Lennon’s famous notion about the power of love had potency and potential in our current crisis. I only wish I had added some lines from his great song “All You Need is Love.” So I will quote some rather profound lyrics from the song as I lead you to a link to my Shepherd Express commentary:

There is nothing you can make that can’t be made.

No one you can save that can’t be saved.

Nothing you can do but you can learn

how to be you in time.

It’s easy…

( my italics)

Perhaps it’s not always easy. But Lennon’s simple rhetorical assertion leads to the idea off applying love to the problem, perhaps learning to love in a Christ-like manner. Lennon’s notion that we can learn, through activism, how to be who we really are (or “praying with our legs” as Frederick Douglass put it) rather than through passive being or existence, is what strikes me.

The link to my Shepherd Express commentary on the protest

And thanks for reading, and for trying to be who you really are.

In addition, here are the two sides of the protest sign I made and used for the March including my satirical drawing of Donald Trump:

I didn’t arrange the book titles shown beside the sign, but their titles serendipitously resonate with ideas explicit or implicit in my Shepherd Express article. The small book at top is a portion of the Bible illustrated by Marc Chagall. 

This backside of the sign at top, from a previous march protesting police violence as supported by Trump, received plenty of comments during the march. Photos by Kevin Lynch.

Activism is also crucially about dialog as well as dissent. I’m also sharing images below, by Jonathan Klett, of Milwaukee Police Chief Alberto Morales. Here he’s talking, at a Veteran’s Park protest Sunday, with Nate Hamilton (in red jersey), the brother of Dontre Hamilton, who was killed by a MPD officer at Red Arrow Park a few years ago — the subject of the acclaimed documentary Blood is on the Doorstep. I allude to Morales’ defiant comments and to the film’s title in my SE article. I was also troubled by the fact that Morales lowered his mask to speak face-to-face with Hamilton. Is this a version of Donald Trump’s macho posturing about not wearing a mask during the COVID crisis?

Nate Hamilton (left, in red jersey) speaks with MPD chief Alberto Morales. Photo by Jonathan Klett.

Here is a brief video by Jonathan Klett of MPD Chief Morales being dissed away from the Veteran’s Park protest:

Morales leaving protest

I highly recommend Blood is at the Doorstep, about Hamilton’s death and his family’s effort towards justice, now available for streaming or purchase. I reviewed it in this blog:

Milwaukee film brilliantly embraces the family of Dontre Hamilton – a search for justice

Thanks to Klett for this link to the film:

https://streamingmoviesright.com/us/movie/the-blood-is-at-the-doorstep/

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1 The ceasing of the Shepherd Express print edition has forced the permanent lay-off of much SE staff, including my friends John Schneider and Rip Tenor (a.k.a. Art Kumbalek), a sad turn of events.