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Tangled Histories

February 21st, 2016

My wife Elizabeth Thomas and I have just launched our new collaborative blog, Tangled Histories, connected to our ongoing book project on William Holland Thomas (her gg grandfather), the Eastern Cherokee, and the long history of white supremacy — as it unfolded in the amazing microcosm of western North Carolina. The inaugural entry is Elizabeth’s beautiful thought piece inspired by a bell she inherited, recalling Southern belles, bells to beckon servants and slaves, and church bells ringing for Judgment Day.  Please follow and contribute!  We welcome your comments and your own stories.

Listening to images

February 9th, 2016

In my last post I mentioned the image of John C. Calhoun paired with a chained slave, honored in a stained-glass window at Yale College through the late 1980s.  There it stared generations of privileged students – including myself – in the face, and somehow most of us didn’t, or couldn’t, register its horror.

I had the same startling recognition looking at a photograph of a young President Obama on his first day in the Oval Office with a bronze cast of Frederick Remington’s Bronco Buster on a table behind him.  The photograph came to my attention recently in a wonderful essay by Margaretta Lovell, my dissertation advisor many years ago, on the enduring hold of Remington in American culture.

Did no one at the time see the raw irony of this juxtaposition? The first black person to occupy that office, here presented as a man of thought, is paired with a man of action in the background, who signals his forcefulness with a raised whip, the ultimate symbol of slavery – and both under the echoing arm of Liberty on the wall above.  In fact, Obama had inherited the Bronco Buster from seven previous Presidents who kept it in the office in a prominent place of honor.

For the first time, Remington’s icon hit me in the face as a true horror.  The artful deceit of this piece is that the cowboy and the horse are matched in a daring contest of wills.  In truth the horse is mere chattel, a prisoner who will be beaten and whipped until he is “broken.”  He is in the same structural position as the slave at Calhoun’s feet, and has roughly the same prospects – either submission or death.  The horse has to contend with something much larger than the cruelty of a single cowboy armed with a whip: a vast system of oppression that literally owns him, pens him in, and defeats him in advance.

I used to ride horses.  One of the books that has spoken to me most powerfully is Monty Roberts’ memoir The Man Who Listens to Horses.  Roberts’ own father was a policeman and horse trainer who advocated the usual abusive method of “correction” – beat them where it hurts.  A watershed moment in Roberts’ life came when he witnessed his father horrifically torturing a black soldier he had captured in a robbery attempt, in the 1940s.  His father chained, dragged, kicked, and beat the semi-conscious man on his way into and through the police station, while his fellow officers hollered and laughed.  The young Roberts pleaded with him to take the injured man to a hospital but his father insisted the man was faking his pain.  The boy learned later that the man died in custody of his injuries without ever having seen a doctor.  “From that point forward,” Monty writes about his father, “I knew I had to direct my life away from him.” This meant an entirely different approach to horses, based on observation and empathy rather than torture and dominance.

So there in the Oval Office sits Remington’s icon of violent domination, disguised as an act of masculine bravery.  Just to be clear, “political correctness” has nothing to do with the discussion here.  I’m not interested in censoring this image.  In fact I want the opposite: I want us to look at it and see it for what it plainly is.

The connection Roberts made between horse breaking and racist killing contains a very powerful truth.  There is a huge structure of domination at work here in this little bronze depiction of animal abuse, tying together masculinity and white supremacy.  The answer to it is not more violence.  The answer – as Roberts showed by his own example – is empathy, listening, moving however fitfully toward the truth.

To the President of Yale

November 21st, 2015

Dear President Salovey,

An appeal from the Yale Alumni Fund came to me through the mail this week.  I haven’t given to Yale in a number of years, but have decided, after much reflection on the events at Yale this fall, to send in a donation.  I thought I would explain why.

Years ago I played a very small part in Brown University’s pioneering project to reckon with the institution’s role in the history of slavery.  I had the opportunity, along with several other academics, to meet then-President Ruth Simmons and to discuss how a public monument might fit into Brown’s larger effort.  As I’m sure you know, the whole process of study and reflection took several years and culminated in a number of specific institutional initiatives that involved historical archiving, curricular reform, integration of the research in K-12 education, community engagement and investment, and a new monument on campus.

Yale did not engage in any such process, despite appeals from within and without.  Frankly, I was very disappointed and I stopped giving to the alumni fund.  Given Yale’s enormous wealth and privilege, the institution – it seemed to me – should have been resilient enough to do some serious self-examination and inquire openly into the sources and legacies of its privilege.  I was hoping that the inquiry might go beyond slavery and include also the long fraught history of town-gown relations, including for example Yale’s role in the “urban renewal” of New Haven, which destroyed black communities in the name of progress.

As an art historian, I have been amazed at the longevity of images of bondage on campus.  The portrait of Elihu Yale with his black “servant” in a silver collar that hung in the corporation boardroom did not come down until 2007, and then only in a hush-hush way with no open discussion.  A metal statue of a kneeling black man/slave holding up a sundial – once in Elihu Yale’s estate – sat in the gardens of JE College when I lived just across the way in Branford in the 1970s.  John C. Calhoun’s chained slave, in his stained glass window in Calhoun College, survived until about 1990.  All of these examples offered “teachable moments,” but they were swept under the rug of institutional amnesia.

Now that policy of willful amnesia has caught up with Yale and with many other universities across the country, as they struggle with protests and criticisms about ongoing institutional racism.  I understand that there are some who feel that your response of November 17 (http://yaledailynews.com/blog/2015/11/18/salovey-announces-policy-responses-in-campuswide-email/) is too little, too late.  But I am also a believer in “better late than never.”  I want to commend you for getting started, and hope that a more searching self-examination will follow.

Even just a cursory glance at the online commentary in response to the student protests makes clear that you will get a lot of pushback from angry donors with deep pockets.  Without engaging in accusation, I’ll just say that these critics drastically oversimplify the issues.  If you are sitting comfortably outside the university, you don’t have the same perspective as a faculty member trying to teach the history of slavery or race or images like those that once adorned the collective spaces of Yale – much less the perspective of students of color trying to open up these discussions or simply endure them when they are dominated by others who have no understanding of them. But it is the job of the university to teach these issues, to create spaces where people can air disagreements and still listen to one another, and to work toward a better dialogue.  It isn’t easy, but it’s essential.

Brown has a twelve-year start on Yale.  It would be interesting to consult with a range of people involved in Brown’s effort and learn more about what worked and what didn’t, how the university is following through, and which initiatives seem to have the most continuing impact. We can and should learn from each other.  We need to stay open to new ideas and flexible enough to change course.

In that spirit, I enclose an annual gift with my hope that we can indeed work toward a “better Yale.”

What to do with Confederate monuments?

November 5th, 2015

Over the years I’ve heard from many people who were upset that Confederate monuments still had a place of honor on courthouse greens and college campuses. Honestly, I never thought I would see the day when the idea of removing any of them would be taken seriously.  Now that day has arrived, because of Charleston, and Ferguson, and other tragedies that have begun to force us, as a nation, to connect the dots.

A colleague in New Orleans who works with public sculpture and monuments asked me to share my thoughts about the current debate there over four Confederate monuments in the city.  She asked, “Do you think they should be moved?  Who do you think should decide?”  Here is my response, which I am posting essentially verbatim in the hope that it might prove useful or thought-provoking to others who are struggling with the same or similar issues:

There are certainly many precedents for moving or destroying monuments, nationally and internationally.  Revolutionaries destroyed the equestrian monument of George III in 1776 in New York; a few fragments still exist.  The U.S. army destroyed the statue of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad, cheered on by most Americans.  Many of the same arguments used to defend Confederate monuments (“it’s our history”) would apply equally to Saddam in Iraq or George III in New York. Post-Soviet countries have done many different things to statues of Lenin, including moving them to statue parks or graveyards.  These are all examples of regime change where the usual arguments for preservation are suddenly thrown out the window.

Sometimes monuments are moved just because they have gone out of fashion stylistically.  Greenough’s statue of Washington in the national capital is a good example.  It stood outside the Capitol building on axis with the entrance for almost 70 years before being moved inside to the Smithsonian, not because of any problem with George Washington but because the statue had long been a laughing stock.

Some more direct precedents for the current discussion would be the two sculptural groups that framed the entrance to the Capitol building, both with demeaning representations of Indians, which were removed to storage in 1958 and have not been seen since.  Then there is Louisiana’s own “Good Darky,” which was erected in Natchitoches in the 1920s, removed in the late 1960s, and then resurrected on the grounds of the Rural Life Museum in Baton Rouge.

In general I lean toward preservation and reinterpretation, but I don’t feel dogmatic about it.  The Good Darky had to go for sure, and the Capitol groups as well. Probably Saddam too for that matter, though the way it was orchestrated top-down by the U.S. still offends me.

I don’t have a lot of sympathy for Confederate monuments, especially since the arguments to spare them almost always minimize in some way the enormity of the crime of slavery, and the lingering impacts of white supremacy on black lives.  If we could use these monuments to confront the issue of white supremacy head on, unflinchingly, then I would be in favor of keeping them for that purpose.  The problem with simply taking them away and putting them in storage is that solution doesn’t answer the purpose either.  However, at the very least, removing them sends a message that they are no longer honored, that their defense of the crime of slavery will no longer be misrepresented as valor.

Thinking about Lee Circle specifically, I might consider a compromise where his statue is removed and put in a museum (who really sees it all the way up there anyway?) but the empty column remains as a reminder, and as a focal point for creative temporary installations, dialogues, and reinterpretations.  I would get art schools and local museums and an array of community organizations involved to program the site. It might be redubbed “First Amendment Circle.”  But all that would take money and/or passion and a lot of thought and planning, which doesn’t usually happen in these cases because people are scared of possible conflict, or just unwilling to do the work.

The “who should decide” question is a tough one, because for me the who question can’t be separated from the how question, how should we decide?  The process of going to a city council is certainly democratic but also polarizing, not conducive to true listening and dialogue.  I’d much prefer setting in motion a bottom-up process of discussion, and seeing where it leads.  Ultimately this kind of discussion, if it had legs, would create the energy and thought necessary to do genuine reinterpretation, counter-installations, and other ongoing programming — to make the site meaningful once again, but in a radically new way.

The Unknown Dead

July 21st, 2014

Driving to New York last week, I took a detour to see the Confederate cemetery in Hagerstown, Maryland.  It’s a cemetery within a cemetery, a special section inside the municipal cemetery but with its own gate and boundary markers and monument.

The cemetery owes its existence largely to the battle of Antietam, which left thousands of Confederate dead in mass trenches hastily dug by the Union forces on private property.  The federal soldier cemetery established there, one of the first in the new national cemetery system, decided – under pressure from Union veterans – not to accept any Confederate remains.   Not long after, the Maryland state assembly responded by establishing the cemetery in Hagerstown, which hired a local contractor to scour the landscape for miles around, digging up Confederate bodies and relocating them to the cemetery plot.  Hagerstown took its place alongside Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond and Magnolia Cemetery in Charleston as one of the major repositories for reburying the Confederate dead.  When the cemetery was rededicated for the Civil War Centennial in 1961, ex-President Eisenhower showed up to give the address.

I had read up on the site before going but wasn’t prepared for what I found.  It is a large semicircular plot of grass on a gentle downhill slope, surrounded on three sides by a regular late-19th century cemetery cluttered with angels and obelisks and other typical gravestones of that era.  But in the Confederate plot there is none of this, just a huge empty stretch of grass without markers of any kind – a void in this city of the dead.  I didn’t even realize at first when I passed through the gate that I was walking on top of graves.  Apparently the managers had no money to order gravestones, and with so many of the dead unidentified anyway, they decided it would be more appropriate to leave all the graves unmarked.  Since then only a couple of small granite plaques have been added, flush with the ground.  Some three thousand bodies lie there, only a few hundred known to be identified, and just two marked.

The experience was strangely moving and disturbing.  Here were 3,000 men whose names, dates, and life histories had been buried with them.  Their lives erased, they had become defined solely by their deaths, deaths in the name of the Confederacy.  The empty hillside created a powerful impression of unity, of men subsumed and consumed in a cause much bigger than their individual existence ever could be.  That in a nutshell is what is wrong with war.  These 3,000 men ended up under the ground in Hagerstown because a nation-state had calculated the efficacy of their bodies like so much money or fuel, then buried their lives under a death-dealing abstraction.  I left the cemetery wondering whether the Lost Cause might have been deprived of at least some of its power if the federal cemeteries like Antietam had just accepted Confederate bodies from the start.  If the enemy’s deaths are going to define their lives, why not bring those dead over to your side?