In Ralph Ellison’s beautiful recounting of the ugly truth about race in America, “Invisible Man,” the protagonist recalls a haunting landmark at the Southern black college he attended in his youth.
“.... In my mind’s eye I see the bronze statue of the college Founder, the cold Father symbol, his hands outstretched in the breathtaking gesture of lifting a veil that flutters in hard, metallic folds above the face of a kneeling slave; and I am standing puzzled, unable to decide whether the veil is being lifted, or lowered more firmly in place; whether I am witnessing a revelation or a more efficient blinding.”
Though never named in the novel, “the college Founder” was Booker T. Washington, who some Black leaders of the time found too subservient and too willing to settle for less from the white establishment. And the school was Tuskegee Institute in Alabama.
That scene comes to mind as statues are being challenged across the nation ... most of them bronze and granite tributes to Confederate soldiers and generals that never should have been erected in the first place. Certainly not in town squares.
But what about Abraham Lincoln?
In Washington, D.C., the Emancipation Memorial (which bears an eerie resemblance to the Booker T. Washington monument) has become the center of a deep divide within the Black community that falls mostly along generational lines. And, like the statue in “Invisible Man,” its meaning depends on the eye of the beholder. It depicts an enslaved man, his shackles broken, kneeling before a standing Lincoln. Lincoln, of course, signed the Emancipation Proclamation that freed enslaved Americans. But where some see a great moment in history, others see a distortion.
“The monument is historically inaccurate,” historian Arica L. Coleman told The Washington Post. “It gives the impression that we were just sitting around waiting for Lincoln to free us. That is not true. From the beginning of the war, we were running away. A lot of us were going into the Union lines seeking freedom. Black people were like, ‘I’m not sitting here waiting to be freed.’ ”
Even Frederick Douglass, who spoke at the monument’s dedication, had issues with it.
“What I want to see before I die,” Douglass wrote in a letter to a newspaper in 1876, “is a monument representing the Negro, not couchant on his knees like a 4-footed animal, but erect on his feet like a man.”
Others point out that the monument was commissioned by Black people and that the model for the Black man in the sculpture was himself formerly enslaved. So, following a failed attempt by protesters more than month ago to topple the sculpture, the debate continues.
Some Americans see the mounting anger against such statues as going too far. To be honest, I sometimes wonder that myself.
As some of you keep telling me: “Slavery ended more than 150 years ago. Get over it.” But consider what followed:
The federal government’s refusal to honor its promise of land for formerly enslaved farmers. The 1898 takeover of Wilmington, N.C., by white racists who couldn’t accept the economic and political progress of Black people there. Jim Crow. The KKK. The 1921 attack (by land and air) on “Black Wall Street” in Tulsa, Okla., by a white mob ... and the National Guard. Segregated and unequal schools (then and today). Lesser G.I. Bill benefits for Black veterans than for white ones after World War II and redlining by lenders, both of which helped to create the racial wealth gap. The lynchings of 4,400 black people between Reconstruction and World War II. Forced sterilization of mostly Black Americans, which a new report says was intended to “breed them out.” Voter suppression and disproportionate police killings of Black people, right here and now.
The past really isn’t past after all. And a volcano of anger and frustration inevitably has erupted.
Wouldn’t you be angry? Wouldn’t you want to right as many wrongs as you could while you could?
As Ellison writes in “Invisible Man”: “I am invisible, understand, because people refuse to see me.”
So, no, I don’t agree with every challenge to every statue. I hate it when bad actors contaminate peaceful protests. And I wish protesters had chosen a better verb than “defund.” But I’m glad this nation is finally having this difficult but long overdue conversation.
And that much of America, if not all of it, finally seems willing to see what was in plain sight all along.