I have two pieces in a show titled "Bending the Arc" at my church, sponsored by our Facing Racism Action Group. I had to shoot this from an angle to avoid reflections.
Years ago I began a series of collages highlighting "great moments in American history", with the birds of John James Audubon looking on. I depicted, without irony, Washington and Lafayette, then the Louisiana Purchase, the voyage of Lewis and Clark, the Transcontinental Railroad. I really meant to celebrate our heritage but as I read about each event it was like looking under my heroes' skirts; there's always another story.
Here's my blog post from Washington's Birthday, February 2020;
When that other George, King George III of England, was told that at the end of his term of office President Washington would relinquish power and retire to his farm in Virginia, he said,
"Then he's the greatest man in the history of the world."
Yes, the father of our country was a great man but not perfect, because, oh, yeah, slavery. It's hard to love Washington as whole-heartedly as we love Lincoln.
In this collage,
General Washington expresses his thanks to the Marquis de Lafayette for his help in winning American independence. It's a statue that stands in Place des Etats Unis in Paris and a copy at 114th Street in Manhattan. A French coq and a Louisiana heron look on. The snow-covered trees are a reminder of the winter at Valley Forge.
In a New York Times op-ed that week, Alexis Coe, author of (I love this title) You Never Forget Your First, A Biography of George Washington, says that "Lafayette spent the rest of his life proposing various ways Washington could free his slaves during his lifetime, setting a powerful example for the infant nation." If only.
Lafayette idolized Washington but he knew right from wrong and he wanted his hero to be perfect.
I'm trying to imagine how Washington could have held on to the life he enjoyed without free labor.
Lincoln said in his second inaugural address,
“It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces, but let us judge not that we be not judged.”
So I won't judge.
We can love our country and still see clearly that there is much work to do to live out the promise of her ideals.
This reminds me of Mount Rushmore, which Jessie and I visited the summer she turned sixteen. I found it to be weird and a little cheesy. As you approach the viewing place there are tinny speakers playing Sousa marches. You have to feel some awe at the chutzpah of the whole thing. Not to mention what the people who were living there thought of the whole thing. so I googled Mt. Rushmore and Indigenous People and this is what the National Park Service says. Many National Park sites occupy spiritually and culturally important places to Native peoples, and possess histories often marred by dispossession and exclusion of Native peoples from these sites.
Guston Borglum, the artist, taught at the Art Students League, so I felt an affinity. I looked up and thought, "Should I be working bigger?"
This monumental work was begun in 1927, conceived as an attraction to bring tourists to the Dakotas. Four presidents, carved into a mountain. Washington represents the birth of the nation, Jefferson its growth, Lincoln the preservation of the Union and Teddy Roosevelt its development into the twentieth century. those were the years that many monuments to the Confederacy were being erected all across the south and Borglum made many of them. Borglum was a member of the Ku Klux Klan. Maybe he found connections with Klan members to be helpful in securing commissions. But still.
Didn't Hemingway say, "Don't get too close to an artist--he might smell bad." ?
May 11, 2023