“The Negro Politician and The Racial Mountain”

As a constituent and citizen, I take issue with much that the Common Council “does,” not the least of which was their unanimous approval of 13 new traffic fees on July 10, 2018 that effectively made “Driving While Black” as real, as penalizing, as racially targeted, and as economically crippling a traffic offense in the City of Buffalo as it is in such jurisdictions as Tonawanda and Cheektowaga—but I digress. . .because for once I can honestly applaud a measure they took.  In the October 16, 2019 issue of The Challenger Community News, it was reported that, “the Council’s Community Development Committee received and filed. . .[Samuel A. Herbert’s ‘We The People’] petition request to replace the [MLK bronze head] and to hold a public meeting on the issue.”  They killed the petition, in other words, and to that I say, and resoundingly, AMEN! 

Look.   I get it.  The bronze head in Martin Luther King Park does not look like the venerable Civil Rights leader, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  To quote a friend’s Facebook post on the issue, “I Have A Dream. . .That someday, somebody would remove this bust/statue thing of this Shaq-Candy Man-Amistad—’Give Us Free’ Looking Dude at MLK Park. . .and replace it with one of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.!!!” 

This, along with many other tossed-around epithets have given me and the people no less than a few chuckles, I admit, but at the center of this protest is African American artist John Woodrow Wilson, and his legacy.  And perhaps, more central to this matter is the subject of Black Art itself.  Never mind that according to Brother Clifford Bell, chairman of the Buffalo African American Museum and a member of the original committee that brought the project to the park, the statue “was never meant to be an image in the likeness of Dr. King”; a statement reported in The Challenger News article “The Making of a Monument” (2019, February 7).  The article also cites the artist’s own words: That “[Dr. King] . . .sought and found a universal brotherhood in in all people . . .He did not cultivate a superman image. He was a simple direct man who would not want to be remembered by some. . .grandiose monument. . .For me the essence of his ideals, sensitivity and eloquence seems to be communicated and focused through his head.”  Wilson also explicated that he “wanted this colossal head to express an enigmatic image that will evoke a sense of ritual and elemental forces that a very wide audience can respond to.”  Long story short, this is intended to be—and is—an “everyman” piece of art, with an imagery that was meant to articulate inclusivity and to foster that feeling amongst the neighborhood traffic.  That is, if we allow it to do its work.

In addition, and not to discredit cross-cultural articulations of Dr. King’s transcultural and transnational significance, which I wholly endorse, Sam Herbert’s preference for a Chinese artist, Lei Yixing, and not an African-American one for this project after taking up the fight on behalf of Black Buffalo residents to replace it, and after receiving a “mandate from God” to do so, speaks loudly to his lack of appreciation for the Black Aesthetic in Black Art, and for the Black Artist in general.

Sam Herbert’s vitriol towards this monument has been shocking and shameful.  He has called the monument “that big black head,” “that distorted black head, “that shameful black head” [emphasis added], and a “wrong to be corrected”; not to mention those criticizing his stance as “roaches [coming out] of the woodwork.”  What I take issue with is not so much the desire of Sam and “His People” to have a more realistic looking statue, but the disparaging and disrespectful way in which he went about advocating for this change.  Furthermore, when both Clifford Bell and Masten District Councilman Ulysses S. Wingo proposed to resolve the issue by possibly using city art funds to create another, more “realistic” looking memorial, Sam replied that he and his people “don’t even entertain that thought.”  He claims that his “beef has never been with the sculptor” yet the reprobation that has colored his entire “Melt It Down” campaign has said everything but!  His energy begs the real answer to the question, “What is it, Sam, about this art, this Black Art, that you really take such issue with?” 

John Woodrow Wilson (1922-2015) was an African American artist whose lifework centered on contextualizing the Black experience. The bust depicts the face of a Black man with strong, decidedly African features.  It evokes a sense of strength and power, and it screams loudly of the historical erasure of black humanity.  What he sees as a “blank look” I see as a symbolic yet tangible rendering of the denial of humanity to so many millions of Black people historically and transnationally.  It also evokes sagacity in the same stroke.  Seeing with other eyes, in other ways.  And this, two-ness of sight, this double-consciousness in and of itself is symbolic of the Black Experience in America and in that, an affirmation of our humanity despite the attempted historical erasure.  He is “Everyman” and indeed, even though there are those who may not have agreed with Dr. King’s ideological and methodological leanings, no one can deny Dr. King’s sincerity of purpose and belief, nor his courage.

Dr. King is one of the world’s most widely recognized names and faces.  The world is at no dearth of “realistic” Dr. King imagery.  What we have in Buffalo, however, is special.  Unique.  Artful.  No one can argue that it is not also controversial, and good art usually is, and good art will create these kinds of conversations that enrich us and widen or focus our perspectives.

            So let’s think about art for a minute.  There is a tendency—especially among audiences of non-artistic backgrounds—to privilege realism in form over surrealism or abstraction.  It is easier to make a value-judgement when the main criteria for judging is that the work looks like the thing it’s supposed to look like.  But art always has a social context, and for Black Art, that social context is the Black Experience; and when we contextualize the Black Experience within the wider framework of suffering and redemption, struggle and conflict, and oppression and resiliency, we have a wider, more inclusive paradigm from which to parse meaning and value, and we liberate ourselves from the rigid social constructions and implications of western somatocentricity and western aestheticism.

This whole debacle brings to mind a passage from Langston Hughes’ The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain, which I will here take liberty to adapt.  “[He] doesn’t care for the [John Woodrow Wilson] portraits of Negroes because they are ‘too negro’. [He] does not want a true picture of himself from anybody.  He wants the white world to believe that all Negroes are as smug and as near-white in soul as [he] wants to be.  But. . .it is the duty of the. . .Negro artist, if he accepts any duties at all from outsiders, to change through the force of his art that old whispering ‘I want to be white,’ hidden in the aspirations of his people, to ‘Why should I want to be white?  I am Negro—and beautiful?’”

As an educated, African American social-activist, Samuel Herbert should recognize these things, inherently.  Really, I think he just wanted to win one.  It’s been a while.  But like Lauryn Hill said. . .


Kicia Coldspring Hughes