Does the Monument Need an Explainer? [PHIL-OSOPHY]
There's a lot of controversy and emotional sensitivity over the Boston replica of the Emancipation Memorial or Emancipation Group, a reproduction of the one in Washington, D.C., that was paid for by people who had been slaves.
It shows Abraham Lincoln, hailed as the "Great Emancipator" and assassinated for freeing the slaves, with Lincoln's arm extended, holding the Emancipation Proclamation and standing over a kneeling African American, who wears just a loincloth, with broken shackles on his wrist and ankle, representing the abolition of slavery. The freedman is an imaginative depiction of Archer Alexander, who escaped from slavery in Missouri in 1863, and is often said to be the last man recaptured under the Fugitive Slave Act.
It was donated to the City of Boston in 1879 to celebrate Lincoln's emancipation of the slaves, with an inscription that reads: "A race set free and the country at peace. Lincoln rests from his labors."
Objectors have criticized that what was intended as a portrayal of liberation looks demeaning, to show a submissive Black man bending at the feet of the president, and they go on to say it's how a lot of White people actually view Black people. While some are fighting to have Boston's memorial torn down, others are arguing against, saying the only offense of the statue is that it's misunderstood by its critics.
It's important that we learn about monuments like this, about their sculptors and who provided the funding. It's equally important to understand the context – the frame of reference – before making any decisions because it's easy, but mistaken, to separate an image from its context.
Some problems could probably be avoided if we just took a moment to ask, "Is there anything else this illustration could mean?"
Phil Paleologos is the host of The Phil Paleologos Show on 1420 WBSM New Bedford. He can be heard weekdays from 6 a.m. to 10 a.m. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @PhilPaleologos. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.