Black Rushmore… Who Belongs?
For the past few weeks I’ve been working on a “black Mount Rushmore” painting. This thing has been quite a struggle, but I know I must keep pushing to make it perfect. It’s gone through several changes in tone, coloring and intent. My initial idea was creating an image matching the actual monument with faces other than the ones carved into Black Hills rock. I envisioned this to be sort of like an African American history all- star team.
For this image I chose Frederick Douglas, Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, and Nelson Mandela. Then I began to consider the principles of design and composition, one of which advises against putting an even number of objects in an composition. This is because an even number of objects will encourage our natural tendency to group things in pairs. In short, I needed a fifth figure for my mountain. I decided to add Barack Obama, even though he’s still living his importance as a historical figure can’t be denied. So what happened to Nelson Mandela? I removed him and added Sister Harriet Tubman to represent the numerous contributions of black women. And besides, I love her courageous spirit and I’m not alone.
To be sure other African American women could have been included in this image. There is Mary McLeod Bethune , founder of Bethune Cookman College, who once said “the true worth a of a race can be measured by the character of its womanhood”. For some reason that quote always stuck with me. If I had a daughter I would have quoted this to her probably thousands of times. There is Harriett Tubman contemporary and famous abolitionist Sojourner Truth. I even considered more obscure names like business woman Madame C.J Walker, civil rights leader Fannie Lou Hamer, Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm, even former black panther Angela Y. Davis. Maybe these figures could be the beginnings of a separate painting featuring African American women only.
My rationale for including the rest of the figures that made the final cut is like many people’s criteria for the baseball or football hall of fame. When you picture this mountain, who are the obvious faces? Who are the figures so huge in stature that they cannot be left off if your monument is going to be legitimate? Well, Martin Luther King Jr. is where any serious person would start. Frederick Douglas, being the very first recognized leader of black America definitely deserves a spot. But who else, Marcus Garvey, W.E.B. DuBois, Booker T. Washington? Nelson Mandela could be considered but since he’s not an African American he should probably be left off. The same could be said of Marcus Garvey.
From this point I honestly tried to assess my true feelings about these giants of black history. After all, I couldn’t include all of them even if I wanted to. These five figures Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, Martin Luther king Jr. Malcolm X and Barack Obama are primarily important in our history and represent different historical eras and schools of political thought.
So how did each figure earn their place in history? Ms. Tubman was unique in her unrivaled bravery in rescuing slaves from captivity, and was greatly admired by escaped slave Frederick Douglass. Of course Douglass was one of the earliest and most eloquent voices for black people in America. His rise from runaway slave to important adviser to President Lincoln and key advocate for abolition of slavery can never be matched, he simply has be included. Martin Luther King Jr. is more than just a the man we celebrate with a national holiday every 2nd Monday in January. He is one of the most important leaders in American history. Malcolm X is included for one simple reason. In all of the talk and controversy surrounding this fiery leader, no one has ever doubted his love and loyalty to black people everywhere. This part of Malcolm’s legacy is consistently underrated but helps to explain why his stature among African Americans is on par with that of Martin Luther King.
Many people have questioned the greatness of President Barack Obama, including myself. I can only say his administration has proven to be only slightly more liberal that that of George W. Bush. This man is a born centrist, and would probably have fared better in a more “reasonable” Tea Party free political climate . His greatest achievement, passing health care reform, may also prove to be one of his greatest failures. By adopting and pushing for Republican ideas such as the “individual mandate” and setting up state-run private health insurance exchanges he missed an opportunity to leave a legacy of “real” healthcare reform with a public option or single payer type system. Obama bet against his own political heritage as a Democrat in an effort to gain Republican support which sadly, never materialized.
This wasn’t the only time Obama chose political expediency over sound “liberal” policy; the stimulus was way too small, he should have sent all troops home from mid east wars sooner, he should have fought harder against spending cuts and deficit reduction, he should have urged his attorney general to get rid of mandatory minimums and end the war on drugs on day one.
But I realize African Americans still revere Barack and want him to be successful, almost no matter what polices he chooses to pursue. His statute and importance as the first black president is enough to get President Obama included in any discussion of great black Americans, whether he deserves it or not. There’s no way of getting around it, when it comes to black Rushmore Obama has to be on it.
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