When I opened up the Indianapolis Recorder Newspaper a few weeks ago, and saw the picture of the sculpture that was created (or recreated) by artist Fred Wilson, I was appalled, embarrassed, disappointed, and outright mad. My initial thought was that the features around the shoulders, neck, head and face looked “ape-ish” to say the least. And as I read further into the article, I realized that this monument was commissioned by the Indianapolis Cultural Trail, and in their words, “to create a monument noting the place of African-Americans in contemporary society.” Note to Indianapolis Cultural Trail curator Mindy Taylor Ross, “What contemporary society do you live in…the 19th century?”
The original monument that Wilson’s is re-creating is located on the Soldiers and Sailors Monument on Monument Circle in downtown Indianapolis. The African-American figure on the monument is that of a freed slave, sitting on the ground, half-clothed, with his hands raised up with broken shackles. Wilson and the Indianapolis Cultural Trail organizing committee came up with the grand idea to prominently display this re-created monument on the front plaza of the downtown City-County Building.
And this “new” figure will not be clenching his fist around shackles; he will be holding a flag representing the African Diaspora. And this monument, according to Wilson, will represent an “upright, empowered, 21st century person of color.” He cannot be serious.
Although depicting a freed slave in the original monument captures a significant “time and place” in our American and African-American history, is it really necessary to have a similar image just a few blocks east? Similarly, the “jocko style” Black lawn jockey, which was sometimes used to signal safe houses for Blacks escaping slavery along the Underground Railroad, reflects a “time and place” in our history, but I sure would not want one prominently displayed in my front yard today, let alone a 15-foot limestone one in downtown Indianapolis.
As a father of two and a veteran high school United States history teacher, would this project, titled E Pluribus Unum (Out of Many, One)be one that I would take my children to see or sponsor a class field trip to visit? Absolutely not. The original one on Monument Circle would make for a nice field trip for my class when we are studying the Civil War. But this “new and improved” monument is nothing to be proud of, nothing to be happy about, and nothing to be prominently displayed.
Ross and Wilson are hoping that the new monument spurs interest, dialogue and conversation. Indeed it is, but not the kind that they may have hoped for. The talk that I have consistently heard from many prominent African-Americans in this community is unsupportive and unanimously in opposition to this “new” structure. There is only one monument in downtown Indianapolis that depicts an African-American. Now there could possibly be two…very similar, with one being more prominently displayed than the other.
Wilson says he is thinking about, “whether the man depicted in the sculpture should be identified and given a name or should be left to represent the African-American community as a whole.” Well Mr. Wilson, I know you are from New York, but the sculpture that you are working on depicts not one African-American in our entire Indianapolis community, not one. And I have yet to find one African-American in this community who feels proud, empowered, uplifted or enlightened by your proposed structure.
To Ross and the board of directors of the Indianapolis Cultural Trail, this is not the 19th century and the African-American community in Indianapolis does not need another “image” in downtown Indianapolis to remind us of how downtrodden, beat down, hapless, and submissive we once may have been. We don’t need any more images of lawn jockeys, caricatures…no more buffoonery, no more shuckin’ and jiven’, and no more ape-ish looking monuments.
And to both Wilson and Ross, I will give you a few ideas of some African-Americans who we would like to see prominently displayed in downtown Indianapolis, who would make us proud, who would motivate us, who would empower us, who would inspire us, who represents “contemporary society,” who would “represent the African-American community as a whole” and who actually made a positive contribution to our fine state of Indiana.
Major Taylor has a velodrome named after him, but not a monument. Buffalo Solider Morton Finney, who was also a well respected educator, has a building name after him, but no monument. Tuskegee Airman Walter Plamer would be a good choice or anyone from the 28th Infantry could be added to the Soldiers and Sailors Monument. The African-American community would even like to see a monument of business owners John Freeman or Madam C.J. Walker prominently displayed.
In conclusion, whose culture is this image along the Indianapolis Cultural Trail attempting to represent, the oppressor or the oppressed? Monuments in general are created and designed to leave a lasting positive image of a great historical figure…one that we all could be proud of. Think of the Lincoln Memorial, think of the Washington Monument, or even think of the Michael Jordan statue outside of the United Center. Each are there to symbolize greatness, strength and pride, while the newly commissioned E Pluribus Unum passes on another negative image from one generation to the next, to help further supplant the notion that even with a African-American in the White House, we still have a long way to go.
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