Two murals, two different views of race in America

Revered historical figures with racist views elicit complicated opinions when they are visually promoted

James Baldwin posed a thought in “The Fire Next Time,” his 1963 book about race in American history and religion, of how one should grapple and reflect on their past, something Americans have done with their country over the past few months.

“To accept one’s past — one’s history — is not the same thing as drowning in it; it is learning how to use it,” Baldwin, an American novelist and civil rights activist, said.

Over the summer, the national protests that took place after a police officer killed George Floyd have pushed Americans to confront their country’s history and use it to make changes, including how that history is visually represented.

In late July, two Confederate monuments in Phoenix were taken down, including one at the Arizona Capitol.

These examples make sense because the symbolism of the Confederacy and its leaders today blatantly stand opposite to the Black Lives Matter movement. However, there are fewer examples of historical figures not as obviously connected to racism being reexamined in this way.

Theodore Roosevelt's complicated legacy with race

In April, a mural of the 26th U.S. president, Theodore Roosevelt, was installed on the northeast corner of Roosevelt Street and Central Avenue. The piece was created by artists Debra Hurd and Carrie Marill on the Ten-O-One office building owned by True North Studio, a real estate developer in downtown Phoenix. 

Roosevelt is known for serving in the Spanish-American War with the Rough Riders, breaking up monopolies, or “trust-busting,” and setting aside millions of acres for national parks. These achievements make up Roosevelt's legacy in American history, but it is not the whole truth.

This past June, the American Museum of Natural History in New York City announced it would remove a statue of Roosevelt depicting him on a horse guided by a Black man and a Native American man, which has been critiqued as an image of white supremacy. The statue sparked a reexamination of Roosevelt’s legacy and views on race. 

A Silica Magazine article titled “The Racist Legacy of Theodore Roosevelt,” written by Shannon Lee, explored some of the troubling parts of the former president’s views.

“In a 1905 address to Congress, (Roosevelt) stated: ‘It will be a great deal better to have fewer immigrants, but all of the right kind, than a great number of immigrants, many of whom are necessarily of the wrong kind,’” Lee wrote.  

According to a PBS project titled "The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow," written by Tsahai Tafari, "The election of Theodore Roosevelt in 1904 heralded one of the first Presidential administrations openly opposed to civil rights and suffrage for blacks." 

Tafari detailed when Roosevelt invited Booker T. Washington, a Black writer and educator, to a White House dinner, the first invitation given to a Black American. However, Roosevelt invited Washington because the latter "agreed that blacks should not strive for political and social equality," Tafari said.

Roosevelt also believed in eugenics, a belief that desirable characteristics could be passed on through genetics and a method to improve the human race through selective breeding. 

Many of these desirable traits were linked to white people, deemed “superior” over BIPOC. The Eugenics Record Office maintained that negative traits were linked to bad genes, not racism. 

But, historians created a public installation at the Asian/Pacific/American Institute at New York University in 2014 which recreated the office and exposed its practices of “scientific racism” in the name of “race betterment.” 

Lee discovered that Roosevelt proposed "subsidies for white Americans so that they could have more children and endorsed eugenics via sterilizing the poor and mentally handicapped,” while in office.

A moral juxtaposition  

In August, a second mural was installed on the same building, this time of James Baldwin. Antoinette Cauley, a local artist, created the piece as a painting commissioned by the building's co-owner, Jason Harvey. 

Through his writing, Baldwin became one of the leading voices of the civil rights movement, using his own experiences to share what it means to live in America as a Black man. 

Baldwin also wrote about love and sexuality, covering topics such as homosexuality and interracial couples. Baldwin himself was gay and believed sexuality was more fluid and should not be narrowed into binary categories.

In an interview with the Arizona Republic, Cauley explained why she chose to recreate Baldwin in her mural. 

“He was queer, a civil rights leader, a Black man, an author and it was all these beautiful things that created this melody of a person who could speak to so many different populations,” Cauley said.

Harvey told the Arizona Republic that their original plan was to paint a mural of Martin Luther King Jr., but “we wanted something that was going to make people question, ‘who is that?’ and want to research and learn something,” Harvey said.

The two murals create a stunning image walking around the building, but not everyone thinks they should both be there. Marisol Garcia, a sophomore studying animation, sees a clear disconnect between the two murals. 

“I think they put up the Roosevelt mural just because of the street name and didn't look into his history at all," Garcia said. 

Garcia posed that public art should display "the good parts of society, like Black Lives Matter," and art exposing tainted history should be displayed in museums "so they can be put in context."

She added the mural of Roosevelt should be taken down but does not believe there is enough support behind that proposal. 

Dusenge Gloria, a sophomore studying public policy, said the Roosevelt mural only elicits apathy. She said she has seen so many pieces depicting white men to the point where she said "there's a part of me that doesn't care."

But, seeing Baldwin is a different story.

"Being a person of color, these murals are subtle affirmations that we are seen," Gloria said in an email. "These murals for BIPOC are a sign of change, change that affirms our existence and shows us that acceptance, representation is not a far-away reality for BIPOC."

She said she thinks that the best solution for the Roosevelt mural would be to install a plaque of some sort to inform and educate passersby, and hopes to see more pieces from BIPOC throughout the city.

Art is more than just a visual medium; it is a critical one as well. 

In the same way that every painting has a foreground and a background, they all have a main story and a backstory. The artist provides the first, but it is up to the viewer to understand the latter by finding the big picture.

A mural of a president is not just a colorful portrait. While it may intend to promote their positive accomplishments, it also glorifies them as a whole, including the bad. Pretending this piece does not glorify those things is harmful and perpetuates the myth that America is no longer a racist country.


Reach the reporter at rknappen@asu.edu and follow @RyanKnappenber3 on Twitter. 

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