Response to Mural Comments
African American history is an inspirational story of survival. Against unthinkable odds we have made countless contributions to the comforts and freedoms all Americans enjoy. We were not the only ones to do so. Contributions were made by some European ethnic groups who also met bias and violence here. However, Europeans not of the Protestant faith soon found that their skin color was the ultimate differentiator…allowing for full mobility and access to opportunities.
Many readers who responded to my efforts to have the mural ‘Out of the Soil’ relocated have suggested I haven’t the right to comment on affairs of Columbus, given I currently reside in Colorado. I should ask, then, if it’s okay for me to have opinions about gay marriage, capital punishment, gun ownership, immigration, etc, if I do not live in a state with these controversial laws? Should I be silent about nuclear proliferation in North Korea and leave it to their neighbors to the south to worry about? My point is, of course, that we are all interconnected. To borrow a quote from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
Blacks are asked to turn a blind eye to many painful reminders of slavery’s legacy. We pass by courthouse grounds and see symbols of Old South domination immortalized, and that should not bother us. We read about groups that want to celebrate the South’s secession from the Union and we are expected to believe that brave men fought and died over the highly principled and cleverly crafted term ‘states rights’, when we know that the most significant among those rights was the one that would allow one man to own another human being. We are expected to look at antebellum homes and see them for their architectural design and romanticize that period, even when we know that many of them housed our ancestor’s tormentors. When I lived in Mississippi, there were only five (5) accredited high schools for blacks, out of eighty-two (82) counties, whereas more than one hundred (100) high schools for whites were accredited. This reality was by design and it did not create a level playing field…which was its purpose. If we failed to qualify as doors of opportunity opened, we were blamed for being inherently inferior. Well, so much for that ‘separate but equal’ nonsense.
‘Out of The Soil’ was painted during a time when blacks were “socially invisible”, and at a time when blacks had ‘no rights that whites were obliged to obey’. We were typecast as inferior beings, which was the stereotype used to justify slavery from its inception. This mural does not say, as an example, that sharecropping was invented as a replacement for slavery. It does not say we were put in those fields by design, and that collusion between school boards and farmers made labor available during months that black children should have been in school. It does not tell us that many southern newspapers refused to print Help Wanted Ads from northern factories because they wanted to keep a source of cheap labor confined to the region. And just as important it fails to tell us that, following the Civil War, former power brokers wanted to make a statement to the newly freed slaves: “You may be physically emancipated, but you are economically enslaved!”
Art is intended to educate, entertain and/or provoke. I have obviously been provoked by the lack of context with this mural, and I am not alone. Research has shown that at the time of the mural’s installation the local Post Master commented in his notes that ‘many blacks are offended.’ Imagine the risk taken and the courage it must have taken for even one black person to voice an objection during those times. I ask you this: Had there been a bi-racial review board in 1939, do you believe this mural would have made it from the drawing board? I think not. I appreciate the debate that my request has generated because I think through constructive criticism more progress can be achieved. I think it’s time for this mural to be retired to a library, museum or classroom, so that a trained facilitator can build a proper lesson plan around it that educates us about this era of America’s dark past, and transition into the remarkable progress that is evident in Columbus. I think we would all benefit. I would love to attend such a class.
MURAL, MURAL, on the WALL
High on the post office wall
They hung you decades ago.
What did the artist see?
“Darkies in the cotton field,
Staying true to their “Manifest Destiny”.
Some looked upon you
With righteous thoughts and approval.
Others looked, as if into a mirror,
And saw a different scene.
They said, “I feel for you.”
You seem powerless and voiceless.
Your bowed head and servile smile
hides your pain and agony.
Keep your spirits high.
Bend your head, pull that sack.
Put one foot forward, then the other.
One more day; one more aching back.
Despair comes; hopelessness fills your heart.
“Do this for the ones that come
after me,” you think.
Somehow, this gives you strength.
You hear change is about to come.
But when? So you wait patiently.
One day, a small boy came by,
Looked up at you and wondered at the sight
Of people who could be his ancestors.
Toiling in a field in the hot sun.
Was this his future? Was this his plight?
As the winds of change came,
You became invisible.
“Can’t you see me anymore?
Don’t you care about me?
Who will bring me down?
Who will tell my story, you ask?”
By chance, a man walks in;
No longer a frightened boy.
He saw you anew, and then he knew,
he was chosen.
“I see you”, he said, “I really do.
The winds of change have changed my life.”
But, it’s really about you.
I stood on your shoulders,
And lived your dreams.
I have heard your deafening cry.
I’ll bring you down and, this time, I will tell your story.”
For Reese, my granddaughter
January 23, 2011