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“Flies in the Milk”: Visibility and the African-American Material World

The freedman extends his broken chains in this closeup from the Soldier's and Sailor's Monument (photograph by the author).

The freedman extends his broken chains in this closeup from the Soldier’s and Sailor’s Monument (photograph by the author).

In 1979, Ralph Ellison captured the complicated notion of color line visibility and took aim on the apparent contradiction of being both Black and American.  Ellison suggested that African America was “penalized not because of their individual infractions of the rules which give order to American society, but because they, like flies in the milk, were just naturally more visible than white folk. . . . In this dark light `high visibility’ and `in-visibility’ were, in effect, one and the same.  And, since black folk did not look at themselves out of the same eyes with which they were viewed by whites, their condition and fate rested within the eye of the beholder.”

This week the Art, Race, Space symposium examines the relationship between aesthetics, material culture, and urban space along and across the color line and the complicated notion of visibility, power, and race that Ellison contemplated.  Defined narrowly, the conference focuses on a late-19th century sculpture of a freed captive that artist Fred Wilson proposed recasting in 2007, but Wilson’s design was eventually deemed to be an unacceptable representation of the African diaspora.  The broader issues that matter beyond Indianapolis revolve around the complicated question of precisely what constitutes Black materiality:  that is, how do we see Black materiality, and how should we socially and materially represent Black experience in the early 21st century?  How should we fashion the aesthetics of contemporary Black subjectivity filtered through 19th-century racial aesthetics, the weight of 20th-century anti-Black racism, and dynamic 21st-century, post-segregation identity politics?

A 2009 image of Monument Circle (image courtesy Justin Harter).

A 2009 image of Monument Circle (image courtesy Justin Harter).

The story of Fred Wilson’s project E Pluribus Unum (Out of Many, One) has been detailed in Modern Art Notes, Studio 360, Citizens Against the Slave Image, FredWilsonIndy, the Monument Circle Project, NUVO, Art:21, Kirk Savage’s blog, the Indianapolis Recorder, Art Avocado, Contempartnotes, and my own blog.  My own sense is that much of the tension was over the concrete process by which this artwork was selected:  that is, established Indianapolis sources of power rooted in class and racial privilege reaching back to the 19th century determined how to represent African American in a monumental piece of art meant to last indefinitely if not forever.  In a city that has circumspectly embraced assertive grassroots politics, the monument plan and review process sparked profoundly strong feelings about public representations of African diasporan identity.  Wilson hoped to redeem the freedman from the Soldier’s and Sailor’s Monument, where Whites placed him to transparently applaud their ability to secure freedom and forgive themselves for the racism that followed Emancipation.  Yet by once again obscuring the process of determining how African Americans would be publicly represented (through no fault of Wilsons’), the review process risked repeating the racist patronage that produced the original statue a century ago.

The freedman was faced with an impossible mission to timelessly represent Black subjectivity, but he sounds a critical message about race in the late 19th century and the subsequent hundred years that revolves around the trope of visibility that Ralph Ellison placed at the heart of American experience.  The visual metaphor captures the potential redemption promised by being seen authentically, as we are and can ideally be, and today many people do not consider 19th century racial conventions to be productive ways to make African diaspora publicly visible.  Nothing could be more material than the African-American agency and anti-Black racism invested in every square inch of the American city, so the challenge is to recognize that heritage and the White privilege impressed in prosaic bus stops, abandoned lots, homogenous shopping malls, forgettable university campuses, and the Soldiers and Sailors Monument that betrays no consciousness of Blackness and the color line.

Close-up of the Peace face of the Soldier's and Sailor's Monument (photograph by author).

Close-up of the Peace face of the Soldier’s and Sailor’s Monument (photograph by author).

What might we make of the freedman in a moment that aspires to fragment the essential Black subject?  Contemporary scholars routinely herald the demise of essentialized subjects that have been replaced by fluid identities.  The potential death rites to a unified, recognizable Black subjectivity may be a reason for guarded optimism—a signal that anti-racist activism is rendering racialized subjects increasingly untenable and perhaps taking aim on long-disavowed White privilege—but it simultaneously provokes anxiety among White and Black people alike in the face of apparent racial ambiguity if not nothingness.  A stable, clearly bounded African diasporan subjectivity is seductive to many of us—albeit for quite different reasons–but it ultimately is an inadequate representation of the dynamism of contemporary diasporan subjectivity.

Like the long-ignored freedman, the city’s broader landscape is an inelegantly evaded material testament to racial privilege:  state office complexes, the IUPUI campus, the circuitous ribbon of interstates through the city’s heart, and mundane apartment complexes inhabit what were predominately African-American neighborhoods for more than a century.  Nevertheless, these prosaic spaces pass without critical reflection and little or no acknowledgement that they are products of racist spatial engineering.  In an early 21st-century post-segregation society, African-American heritage is perhaps more thoroughly masked than it was just a half-century ago.  Crispus Attucks High School, Indiana Avenue, and a network of churches, stores, clubs, and homes in the near-Westside was a spatial refuge and the social heart of Black Indianapolis for a century.  Consequently, as in most of early 21st-century urban America, much of historically African-American Indianapolis is today spatially displaced, literally erased, or ideologically effaced.

A 2008 image of the Peace face of the Monument (image courtesy DRSPIEGEL 14).

A 2008 image of the Peace face of the Monument (image courtesy DRSPIEGEL 14).

An understanding of the freedman and the discourse over his present-day re-casting needs to push beyond historically specific aesthetics and symbolism and connect him to the 20th and 21st century experience of space and the color line in urban America.  The freedman can no longer aspire to being “authentic”:  he is rooted in a persistent shared African consciousness and a half-millennium of capitalism and colonization, but African America looms uniquely within and outside the American experience.  In a position shaped by African culture, a half-millennium of racist negotiation, the specter of 19th century racial stereotypes, and this post-segregation moment, perhaps the freedman’s burden is to provide us a sober, critical, and potentially redeeming mirror of American life.  This what Richard Wright referred to when he pronounced that “the Negro is America’s metaphor” and argued that African American experience was American history told in its most “vivid and bloody terms.”

The conference web page has more information on the symposium.  These thoughts are simply my own and do not represent the Conference Committee or other speakers at the symposium.  See the PACE Gallery Fred Wilson bibliography for background on Wilson’s work.


Beautiful Trouble

1993 Case Study: Mining the Museum.  Beautiful Trouble: A Toolbox for Revolution blog.

Rena Bransten Gallery

2012 Fred Wilson Press.  Rena Bransten Gallery Web Page.

Callahan, John (editor)

1995 The Collected Essays of Ralph Ellison. Random House, New York.

Anna Chisholm

2009  Fred Wilson’s Un-Natural Histories: Trauma and the Visual Production of Knowledge.  Unpublished paper. University of Minnesota Art History.

Cooks, Bridget R.

2011 Exhibiting Blackness: African Americans and the American Art Museum.  University of Massachusetts Press, Amherst.


2009 Fred Wilson.  Flyover Blog.

Globus, Doro (editor)

2011 Fred Wilson: A Critical Reader.  Ridinghouse, New York.

Kitson, Thomas J.

1999 Tempering Race and Nation: Recent Debates in Diaspora IdentityResearch in African Literatures 30(2):88-95. (subscription access)

Murray, Freeman Henry Morris

1916 Emancipation and the Freed in American Sculpture: An Interpretation.  Published by the author, Washington, D.C.

Robinson, Leroy

2010 Letter to the Editor: Sculpture is AppallingIndianapolis Recorder 16 September.

Savage, Kirk

1997 Standing Soldiers, Kneeling Slaves: Race, War, and Monument in Nineteenth-Century America.  Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey.

Judith E. Stein

1993 Sins of Omission: Fred Wilson’s “Mining the Museum.”  Judith E. Stein, Writer and Curator Blog.


2008 Monument image courtesy DRSPIEGEL 14

Monument Circle image courtesy Justin Harter

Monument Peace face close-up images by author

Race and Materiality: The E Pluribus Unum Project

During the 2012 Super Bowl, the Soldiers and Sailors Monument in the background lorded over the proceedings.

In 2007 artist Fred Wilson was commissioned to contribute a work to Indianapolis’ Cultural Trail, a downtown bike and pedestrian path linking five urban historic districts punctuated with public artworks.   Wilson noted the figure of an emancipated captive paradoxically hidden in Indianapolis’ most public space, the towering 284-foot tall Soldiers and Sailors’ Monument on Indianapolis, Indiana’s central circle,  and he conceived a statue that would draw attention to that image and color line heritage.  Wilson proposed to recast the freed captive in a more upright position and situate him grasping a flag of Wilson’s design that represents the African Diaspora.  Wilson dubbed the work E Pluribus Unum (Out of Many, One), and Trail planners optimistically celebrated that such a work “speaks to diverse audiences and … is long overdue.”

In 1897 German sculptor Rudolfo Schwarz was commissioned to complete “War” and “Peace” statuary groupings for placement on the eastern and western sides of the monument respectively (Modupe Labode’s Monument Circle Project has lots of historic images of the monument).  Nestled at the base of the Peace side is the emancipated African American, kneeling and holding up broken chains toward the female figure of Liberty.  The Emancipated captive passed largely unseen for more than a century, and its hollow narrative of White altruism likewise passed unexamined (the exception was Freeman HM Murray’s prescient 1916 study Emancipation and the Freed in American Sculpture: A Study in Interpretation [pages 120-128]).

Yet the statue’s 19th-century racial aesthetics conflict with most contemporary perceptions of Black subjectivity, and some audiences resisted immortalizing those conventions and the racist privileges the monument has effectively condoned for a century.  On the surface the debate over Wilson’s proposal revolved around acrimony over stale ideological motifs and whether such representations of African America can frame productive conversation about African-American heritage.  Perhaps the most critical dimension of this discussion, though, is how materially illuminating race reveals deep-seated sentiments about racial subjectivity.  From the most quotidian commodities to the most monumental materiality, racial privilege is silently reproduced, masked, and accented by materiality that appears to have no tangible connection to the color line.  The reception to the freedman’s re-casting underscores the complicated ways such representations are contested in the contemporary world.

The Peace sculptural grouping with the kneeling captive at lower right.

The Soldiers and Sailors Monument was typical of later 19th century statuary that aspired to celebrate the mostly anonymous soldiers preserving the Union.  At the monument’s dedication in 1902, the Indianapolis News underscored that selfless service to the state was the central lesson of the monument, which demonstrated that “Private and general are entitled to the same measure of our love and gratitude if they do what they are bidden to do without thought of self.  There is now no man so humble but he can greatly serve the country.”  The 1902 speeches and newspaper articles on the Monument apparently said nothing about the relationship between the war and Black freedom.

Hidden in the recesses of the monument, the freed captive was Whites’ self-congratulatory mechanism that celebrated the gift of freedom won by White citizen-soldiers and forgave themselves for the racism that followed Emancipation.  In 1916, Freeman Henry Morris Murray (1916:124) noted how the statue’s design buried its single captive amongst a cacophony of wartime symbols, observing that the monument aspired “to represent so much of the tumult and carnage as well as the glory of war, on a large scale; and brings into action so many arms of the service in so many stages of the fray; and, moreover, introduces such an over-load of the symbolical and the figurative—and finally, in the lower part, a glimpse of the aftermath of the struggle—that one is at first bewildered, and after a time wearied in the effort to disentangle, to correlate, and to interpret.”

Fred Wilson’s work “re-purposes” symbols and things to compel audiences to rethink or simply acknowledge their meanings, so the unshackled monument captive provided a potentially productive motif to trigger a discussion about freedom, privilege, and the color line (see Wilson’s own framing of the project on the Indianapolis Cultural Trail page).  In 2009 and 2010 the Cultural Trail planners shared their vision of this and other works in a series of public meetings.  Tyler Green’s thorough and thoughtful coverage of the project in Modern Art Notes acknowledged that the planners “held a series of meetings to try to introduce Wilson and E Pluribus Unum to the community. Art students showed up and maybe a few other folks did too. The groups that Wilson and the ICT most wanted to engage — the quarter of Indianapolis residents who are African-American—were mostly disinterested.”  Green certainly mis-characterizes those absences as “disinterest,” but his depiction of conventional “community meetings” that gathered together the “arts community” is clearly spot-on (compare Studio 360).  Deep-seated mistrust of the state and a sober realism about the limits of Black community voices likely kept all but the most committed stakeholders from initial public meetings that have not often included voices of color.

Close-up of the Peace grouping, with the emancipated captive looking up at Freedom.

Nevertheless, some people stormed into the discussion in Fall 2010.  One of the first volleys came in a September, 2010 letter to the Indianapolis Recorder from an African-American high school teacher who complained that when he “saw the picture of the sculpture that was created (or recreated) by artist Fred Wilson, I was appalled, embarrassed, disappointed, and outright mad.  My initial thought was that the features around the shoulders, neck, head and face looked `ape-ish’ to say the least.”  That uneasiness focused on the material aesthetics of Black representation, arguing that “this is not the 19th century and the African-American community in Indianapolis does not need another `image’ in downtown Indianapolis to remind us of how downtrodden, beat down, hapless, and submissive we once may have been.  We don’t need any more images of lawn jockeys, caricatures … no more buffoonery, no more shuckin’ and jiven’, and no more ape-ish looking monuments.”

That somewhat narrow critique of racist aesthetics did not address the thorny community politics of representing racialized symbols in a public, permanent, and monumental piece of material culture.   Much of the debate over the project revolved around how the motif was selected and how the statue’s meaning and interpretation could be subsequently managed.  Wilson himself recognized the folly of aspiring to control such meanings, arguing that “`Public art is … in public and people can interpret it in the way they will and often without any mediation, which is really great.’”  Critics of the project formed the group Citizens Against Slave Image, rejecting the suggestion that 19th-century aesthetics could frame a productive discourse on race.  The dispute was fundamentally over control of public, permanent material representations of African America, not simply one statue.  Wilson appeared on a local African-American radio show soon after, and a caller against the statue again intoned “`Who decides what is appropriate and what is not appropriate?’” (The full audio interview with Amos Brown is on the AM 1310 page.)

A rendering of Wilson’s proposed E Pluribus Unum sculpture.

Fred Wilson’s Indianapolis sculpture raises the issue of exactly how we see race in materiality, and historically Americans have chosen not to see it at all.  Wilson’s design intentionally appropriated an ideologically charged racialized symbol, but, as Wilson recognized, the precise discussion it hoped to foster when installed is not mediated by the state, socially powerful collectives in the city, an arts community, or any other social group.  A reflective public discussion of race and privilege has historically failed Americans for half a millennium, but discussions about racial representation occur constantly in African America in secluded discursive spaces that rarely so forcefully find their way into public space.  Tyler Green’s prescient Modern Art News analysis of the Wilson sculpture’s reception concludes that the reception “is the kind of artist-public discourse wherein art can play an important role as a community protagonist.”   These discussions about African-American heritage have always been at the heart of African-American discourse, so the “arts community” has awkwardly found its way into that discussion and risks appearing self-congratulatory about initiating it.

In a city that has often sought contrived racial consensus, some people saw the disputed statue as an unacceptably inflammatory illumination of the color line and African-American heritage.  Tyler Green lamented that eliminating the statue from the Cultural Trail would yield “a false unanimity,” but in July, 2011 the Central Indiana Community Foundation announced that it no longer supported placing the statue in front of the City-County Building.  Their inelegant retreat focused on the sculpture’s position at the City-County Building, which is home to the city jail as well as the Mayor’s Office, a space Wilson chose in part because it was within sight of the Soldiers and Sailors Monument.  In December, 2011, the project was entirely scrapped.

Fred Wilson’s intentions were in many ways much the same as Freeman Henry Morris Murray’s had been in 1916, when he asked “when we look at a work of art, especially when `we’ look at one in which Black Folk appear—or do not appear when they should,—we should ask:  What does it mean? What does it suggest?  What impression is it likely to make on those who view it?  What will be the effect on present-day problems, of its obvious and also of its insidious teachings?  In short, we should endeavor to `interpret’ it; and should try to interpret it from our own peculiar viewpoint.” Murray saw the well-concealed Indianapolis captive as a misrepresentation of the war, finding that in “the Peace group—wherein a black man appears, seemingly as an afterthought or a sort of supernumerary—there is, artistically viewed, as much confusion and incoherence as in the other [i.e., War group], and there is more over-loading; and in it the symbolical and the figurative are heedlessly and hopelessly mixed with the realistic and commonplace. … I feel an impulse to seize this `super’ by his dangling foot and slide him gently off into oblivion—or else say to him, as sternly as I can: `Awake, awake, put on thy strength . . . shake thyself from the dust; arise.’  You deserve a place at Liberty’s side, not at her feet.  Assist her soberly to uphold the Flag, while others rejoice; for, but for your strong right arm the Flag would even now perhaps be trailing in the dust!”

Wilson aspired to do much as Murray hoped by illuminating an otherwise invisible racial symbol hidden in plain view.  Wilson’s re-imagination of that symbol will not become a concrete material reality, but the contestation of the freedman’s representation of race and African diasporan heritage demonstrates the genuine power of materialities of the color line.  Admitting racialized symbolism challenges communities along and across color lines, and material culture—even the mere specter of material representations of African America like Fred Wilson’s sculpture—can foster productive conversations about the sway of race and racism.