Written by Regis M. Fox, author of Resistance Reimagined: Black Women’s Critical Thought as Survival.
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Events in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August 2017 brought matters of race and representation to the forefront of many communities across the United States. Violence and division sparked a reevaluation of the ways in which the past inhabits the present, of the ways in which collective history is remembered. Subsequent protests targeted monuments honoring the Confederacy and its ideals, in particular. From Massachusetts to Florida, citizens and city officials alike mobilized to have statues relocated or removed. They grappled—and still do months later—with competing visions of national identity. They clashed over appropriate expressions of power and resistance within public space and within public memory.
I understand the impulse.
I’ve also had statues on my mind lately. A year before uprisings erupted in Charlottesville, I was wrapping up my book Resistance Reimagined: Black Women’s Critical Thought as Survival. In part, the book explores why certain historic figures are celebrated as true symbols of the fight for racial equality and others are not. It examines ingrained, even dangerous patterns of remembrance and what they suggest about future models of black leadership and community. Still, a few nagging questions remained. What is it, I wondered, that makes someone especially representative, or better yet, statue-worthy? What cultural icons elicit such heightened levels of reverence, and why?
In search of answers, I embarked on a quest to locate two monuments in nearby Battle Creek, Michigan. First, I sought out Tina Allen’s 12-foot tall, bronze statue of anti-slavery and women’s rights advocate Sojourner Truth. Soon enough, I encountered a larger-than-life Truth occupying center-stage of a small amphitheater in Battle Creek Monument Park. Behind the statue, three placards appeared. One read, “Lord, I have done my duty and I have told the truth and kept nothing back.” A second panel contained a replica of the activist’s only known signature. A third sign stated, “…and Truth shall be my abiding name.” Truth’s right hand rested atop a closed Bible. Opposite the waist-high podium on which the Bible sat, her left hand was outstretched behind her.
During my visit, I asked a few guests milling around to share their thoughts about the significance of the sculpture. What were their first impressions? Did this statue belong here? Two African-American women expressed relief that Truth was rendered “respectably.” Each seemed aware of the capacity for women of color to be misrepresented. Truth’s floor-length frock and shawl signaled her fitness for the space, according to these observers. One of the women similarly praised the statue’s incorporation in such a “nice area,” demonstrating protectiveness of Truth’s legacy. Another gentleman saw little need for my scholarly queries at all. It’s simple, he maintained. “She is freedom.”
On the other hand, the sculpture gave me pause. I was especially struck by just how solitary Truth appears on the large concrete platform. Though one plaque makes mention of Truth’s husband and children, and another mentions her charisma and song, the layout and design simultaneously produce an aura of isolation. Quite literally unaccompanied in stature, Truth is impressive and awe-inspiring, and at the same time, contained and remote.
But then there’s that left hand. It protrudes ever so slightly. Truth’s subtle reach establishes contact with those around her. It is a deliberate summons. No doubt, Truth invites us into relation with her, and indeed, several sightseers clasped their hands into hers as they snapped photographs. One might miss this gesture, except that it mirrors that of Harriet Tubman’s left hand in the second sculpture I sought out that day. This one was comprised of a bronze memorial to the Underground Railroad located about a half mile away in Battle Creek’s Kellogg House Park. Crafted by sculptor Ed Dwight, the 14-foot tall, 28-foot long tribute features Tubman alongside fellow rebels Erastus and Sarah Hussey, as well as other anonymous runaway slaves.
As I uncover in Resistance Reimagined, Truth and Tubman are too often idealized, set apart from other black women freedom fighters to which they might certainly be linked in thought and social action. Their extended hands tell us so. They attempt to touch others—like Harriet Wilson, Elizabeth Keckly, and Anna Julia Cooper, each of whom I analyze in my book—as they work to generate meaningful social change.
Ultimately, matters of race and representation in Charlottesville, and in cities like Battle Creek as well, urge us to ask broader questions. What images best account for our full humanity? What standards determine our expectations for leadership and how might those preferences be revised in our twenty-first century present? Historically, what modes of political awareness and performance do we allow to speak and stand up for our communities? What forms can and must resistance take? What are the consequences if we refuse to move beyond narrow parameters of empowerment? And most importantly perhaps, what’s next?
Regis M. Fox, author of Resistance Reimagined: Black Women’s Critical Thought as Survival, is assistant professor of English at Grand Valley State University.