Michael Elliott, author of the fascinating book Custerology, has recently challenged scholars “to find ways of engaging more directly with the publics who design, administer, and visit sites of commemoration.”

He goes on to say that scholars need “to think about how we can train ourselves and our graduate students to engage with nonacademic publics in matters of raw, public emotion. That project would be fraught with risk and difficulty, but to ignore it will mean condemning ourselves to read one generation after the next of scholarship that is perpetually disappointed in the execution of historical commemoration.”

Speaking of “raw, public emotion,” I was recently invited to speak in Indianapolis about a project that has produced lots of it.  In 2007 the Indianapolis Cultural Trail approached Fred Wilson to make a public art project, one of several major art projects that will mark a bicycle and pedestrian trail that winds through and around the center of the city.  Wilson’s eventual proposal, entitled E Pluribus Unum, set off a storm of controversy within Indianapolis’s African American community.  In preparing for the commission Wilson had become fascinated with a “negro” figure on the Indianapolis Soldiers and Sailors Monument, the only black figure in a huge pile of sculpture arrayed around the main shaft.  As was typical for that time period, the “negro” is a barefoot, shirtless emancipated slave, sitting supine on the ground and holding up broken chains toward a striding female allegory of peace, whose shield proclaims “E Pluribus Unum.”  Wilson came up with the idea of reproducing the figure but placing him more upright on a tilted pedestal several blocks away from the original, with a colorful flag representing the African diaspora in his upraised hand.  In effect Wilson was “mining the monument,” as he had once mined the museum, to draw attention to an insidious representational tradition and suggest a way to reclaim it in the twenty-first century.

But for a lot of complex reasons, many in the Indianapolis African American community reacted negatively.  Some of the reasons have to do with Wilson’s project, some have to do with the local system of authority and philanthropy behind it, and some indeed have to do with the long and difficult history of race relations in Indianapolis.  The reasons are hard to untangle.  But there is no doubt that they have combined to create genuine grassroots resentment.  More than a few people who have never followed academic debates within memory studies are “disappointed” in the project’s “execution of historical commemoration.”

In March I was approached by some in the African American community to lecture on the representational tradition that Wilson was “mining.”  They wanted to inform the public and create a more constructive debate.  Most of them didn’t like Wilson’s project, but they respected him and were open to more discussion.

While I admit to feeling a little nervous about walking into a volatile situation that I didn’t know much about, my job was fairly easy.  I was not there to advocate, but to educate.  I don’t think my talk swayed people one way or the other; if anything it confirmed their feelings.

A couple of points in my talk particularly resonated with the audience.  One was that the standard emancipation imagery of the nineteenth century created a dynamic in which whites could congratulate themselves for ending slavery while presenting abolition as a gift from a morally advanced civilization to a benighted black race.  This “horrible gift of freedom,” as Marcus Wood calls it, has in turn led to the prevailing notion that slavery is black history, not white history.  It was clear to me that many in the audience, justifiably or not, saw a similar dynamic of white patronage at work in the Cultural Trail project.

The other point was that the Indianapolis Soldiers and Sailors Monument, like so many other Civil War memorials, consigned black soldiers to oblivion.  Even though the monument’s inscriptions mention two “colored companies” that fought in the Spanish-American war, the monument says nothing about the more numerous black Indianans who fought for the Union in the Civil War.  The monument does not mention the 28th Colored Troops, mustered in Indiana and later devastated in the famous Crater debacle at Petersburg, or the black Hoosiers who volunteered for the fabled 54th Massachusetts (subject of the movie Glory).  One of the more emotional moments of the evening was the reaction when I put up on screen the name of David Roper, a 22-year-old single black man from Indianapolis who joined the 54th Massachusetts in May 1863 and died two months later in the ghastly assault on Fort Wagner.  It was precisely this kind of story that the soldier monument has repressed, and that many in the audience wanted to see told in public space today.

I have spoken to people on all sides of the issue, including Wilson himself and the public art manager of the Cultural Trail.  It is clear to me that everyone involved really does want to change the terrible public history that has silenced African Americans, buried their stories, and misrepresented the events that led to, and followed, emancipation.  The dispute is over how to change that story, not whether to change it.  Wilson was hoping to draw public attention to the slave figure on the soldier monument, and to start a discussion about it.  In that sense his project has already succeeded beyond his wildest dreams.  Whether it should be installed in temporary or permanent form, in one particular location or another, or replaced by a different image altogether – these issues can and should be worked out in a public process.

I agree wholeheartedly with Michael Elliott’s call to train academics to interact with nonacademic publics.  Especially when their research appeals directly to “real world” concerns, academics have a responsibility to explain its relevance to people who are not already in on their game.  But it is a mistake to assume that our own good intentions will be accepted uncritically and gratefully by “ordinary” people.  Even Wilson himself, who has worked with a variety of publics and commissioning bodies, did not anticipate the controversy his project caused.  Academics with less experience of “the public” than he has are even more likely to run into unexpected problems.

Perhaps we can start from a position of humility.  Yes, if we have done our homework, we know a lot more about our specific subject than most other people in the world do.  But we can still learn a lot from nonacademics who have a lived experience we do not have.  Their knowledge is real, and if we ignore it, we may end up making the same mistakes that we so easily criticize in others.

For more on Fred Wilson’s project see: