We, the Irvington Juneteenth organizers, applaud the Committee for the Commemoration of Enslaved Africans in Irvington and the Village of Irvington for their efforts to create a work of public art that commemorates the lives of each enslaved black person in our village’s past, and the loss of their liberty.
We must be careful with art and its subtle language. Intended messages can be lost, or subverted, if those subtleties are ignored. When we consider public art, the entire community is a creative participant in its realization. Therefore, we all must take the artist’s eye to what we subtextually communicate.
The commission of a public work by the prestigious Vinnie Bagwell to commemorate the enslaved founders of our town is a triumph of historical education. Yet our work must go beyond history. This moment is a time for truth and reconciliation with the Blacks this country has failed. Our public art must reflect this painful acknowledgement, and act as a promise to do better.
The recommendation to place it right on Main Street is ideal. We must focus on the language of public art, and how it reflects our deepest mentalities and convictions, sometimes without us realizing. Read closely what we communicate. Any decision to place our commemoration in a location we don’t often go to, that is easy to miss or forget, reflects all too well the failure of our national conscience to confront and dismantle our legacy of racism that has ferociously endured to this day.
This instinct to repress makes sense. Our identities are unavoidably connected to our own nationality and its whitewashed history. To acknowledge our collective demons, the malignant acts of White America, is a painful and frightening prospect. Yet only through that acknowledgment can penance, forgiveness, and redemption be possible.
Centrally placing our commemoration for the victims of the national sin of slavery communicates a refusal to appease our urge to repress. It is an expression that we see our Black brothers and sisters, and we see their pain. It is a statement in bronze that we will all take ownership to make this town, and nation, a worthier place resolved in its ideals of equality and justice.
Will we hide away our history, or will we embrace our duty to never forget it?
Nathan Bernstein, Kelli Sherelle Scott, Frances Bean, Gareth Evans