Some people don’t opinion Pittsburgh’s Stephen Foster statue as racist. Those people would be wrong.
Yeah, I’m going there. Bide with me.
The statue, which illustrates a borderline caricature of a black musician in tattered apparel playing the banjo at the feet of a regal, well-dressed Stephen Collins Foster — who is often touted as the Father of American Music — will soon be relocated. The city has plans to install in its place a statue of a black girl significant to Pittsburgh’s history.
The Foster statue has been a subject of debate in the city for decades. Damon Young, the co-founder of Very Smart Brothas, has called it “the most racist statue in America, ” with the depiction of the black musician as “the most ridiculous magical Negro you’ll ever see.”
The issue with the statue is partly how it seems but largely what it represents.
The statue was originally commissioned in 1900 by a local newspaper that foresaw Foster “catching the inspiration for his melodies from the thumbs of an old darkey reclining at his feet strumming negro airs upon an old banjo.”
Basically what we’re looking at is a white man during the bondage epoch taking the “inspiration” of a poor black person’s music and not only profiting from it but becoming the country’s foremost music composer because of it.
If you ever wonder what “privilege” and “appropriation” mean, this statue primely shows both.
The appropriation of black people’s music has a long, painful history in America.
Last year, I read “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass” for the first time. The whole book is a must-read for all Americans, but the chapter about slaves singing utterly gutted me. It also gave me a deeper understanding of why appropriating the music of black Americans is such a long-standing and problematic issue. Douglass wrote of slave anthems 😛 TAGEND
“Every tone was a testimony against slavery, and a prayer to God for deliverance from chains … The mere recurrence to those ballads, even now, afflicts me; and while I am writing these lines, an expression of feeling has already found its style down my cheek. To those ballads I trace my first glimmering notion of the dehumanizing character of slavery. I can never get rid of that conception.”
Douglass described the tendency of people — especially the supposedly more enlightened northerners — to misconstrue the nature of black people’s singing 😛 TAGEND
“I have often been utterly astounded, since I came to the north, to discover persons who could speak of the sing, among slaves, as evidence of their contentment and happiness. It is impossible to conceive of a greater mistake. Slaves sing most when they are most unhappy. The songs of the slave represent the regrets of his heart; and he is alleviated by them, merely as an aching heart is alleviated by its tears … I have often sung to drown my regret, but seldom to express my happiness.”
Douglass’ narrative was published in 1845, two decades before slavery objective and about the same period Foster began writing his famous songs. If Foster was really feeling inspired from black people “strumming negro airs, ” then he was profiting from black Americans’ artistic expres of pain at a time when they couldn’t do so themselves.
Some claim Foster was a somewhat decent guy for his time, was striving to humanize slaves and not exalt the antebellum South in his songs. On the other hand, he was knee-deep in the blackface minstrel phenomenon, and some of his lyrics are racially charged to say the least.
“But that was a different epoch! ” people might tell. Yes, it was. But in this era, it induces sense to move that statue to a place where it doesn’t be used as a painful public reminder of our country’s history of racial injustice.
The question we should ask is “What is the purpose of a public statue? “
Unlike art for private consumption and pleasure, a public statue traditionally honors person or something. It’s a way to memorialize a person or an event — to tell “We want to not only remember this person’s place in history but commemorate them.”
Statues are not, as many seem to argue, a history lesson. There are no statues of Adolf Hitler in Germany for a reason, and it’s not because the German people intend to forget his part in history. It’s irresponsible to keep a statue that illustrates an ugly facet of history in such a way that doesn’t make clear how ugly it was.
Foster already has an entire memorial museum in Pittsburgh, so replacing this statue will not affect his legacy there. What it will do is remove a visual glorification of black people’s oppression as well as open up a space to honor a black female who has been important to history.
The mayor has asked the public to weigh in on which black female should be honored with a new statue.
There are no public statues or monuments honoring black girls in Pittsburgh, a city where an estimated 1 in 5 residents is black. “The City of Pittsburgh believes in inclusivity and equality and ensuring that all can see themselves in the art around them, ” the mayor’s office wrote in a statement. “It is imperative then that our public art reflect the diversity of our city and that we accordingly represent our diverse heroes.”
Some suggestions so far include pianist Patricia Prattis Jennings, the first black girl to sign to a full contract with a major American symphony orchestra; Helen Faison, the first black female superintendent in Pittsburgh; Gwendolyn J. Elliot, Pittburgh’s first black female police commander; suffragette Daisy Elizabeth Lampkin, who was the first female elected to the national board of the NAACP; and Hazel B. Garland, the first black woman to head a major newspaper chain.
For many in Pittsburgh, the removal of the Stephen Foster statue would have been enough. But replacing the statue with one honoring a black female is a thoughtful step forward — one that other cities with controversial statues would be wise to follow.
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