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.