Art philosopher Arthur Danto observed, “We erect monuments so that we shall always remember, and build memorials so that we shall never forget.” Art serves many purposes, but perhaps its most important is the memorializing that which must always be remembered.
There is a recurring image in Renaissance art of David holding the severed head of Goliath. These images are inspired by the story in 1 Samuel of how an undersized boy defeated a giant warrior with a non-traditional weapon and saved a kingdom. David had to convince Saul to let him fight Goliath, though Saul had no other options. When Saul finally relented, he offered David his armor, which David refused. You could say David went to do battle with a giant adversary armed with only what he brought.
I remembered the image and then reread the story as I reflected on what does the political defeat of Donald Trump mean for us, Black people – not America, just us. We have an abundance of memorialization dedicated to our suffering; I now hope for an explosion of art dedicated to a victory that will come to mean as much to us as David’s victory came to mean for Israel.
In winning the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln saved the United States. A by-product of that victory was that he eliminated the legal enslavement of Black people by passing the 13th Amendment. I say “by-product” because Lincoln said his objective was the preservation of the Union, not the abolition of slavery. Regardless of his motivation, it was a good thing.
What Lincoln couldn’t do with the Emancipation Proclamation and the 13th Amendment was erase the physical, physiological and emotional trauma of 250 years of racialized chattel slavery. It inhibits how we think of ourselves, both individually and collectively, and defines how we understand our possibilities as human beings. The PTDS caused by it has become the chains that have continued to enslave us for the last 150-plus years.
The ideas that Black people were less human and white people – all white people, regardless of station – were inherently superior to any and all Black people are links that form the chain. This idea is imprinted upon every person in America, Black and white, native-born or immigrant. This racial paradigm is a part of America’s cultural DNA.
I’ve always been drawn to an insight offered by Brazilian philosopher and educator Paulo Frier. In “Pedagogy of the Oppressed,” he writes, “Freedom is acquired by conquest, not by gift. It must be pursued constantly and responsibly. Freedom is not an ideal located outside of man; nor is it an idea which becomes a myth. It is rather the indispensable condition for the quest for human completion.”
The inherent contradiction of the Civil Rights Movement was its appeal to white America to live up to its ideals by conferring upon us that which was not theirs to give: our freedom and humanity. This pursuit of white permission to be recognized as fully human was always doomed to failure. The internalization of our faux inferiority, an intentional result of 400 years of systemic structural oppression, led Black leadership to actively pursue this illusion. But Oz never did give nothing to the Tin Man that he didn’t already have.
There is an important difference between the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and early 1960s and today’s Black Lives Matter Movement. The Civil Rights Movement was seeking inclusion and better treatment of Black people inside America’s existing paradigm. BLM is a resistance movement in opposition to an existing American paradigm that has as its predicate the marginalization and devaluation of Black lives. I would argue that BLM correctly rejects a foundational moral premise of the Civil Rights Movement: the value of unrequited suffering.
Because of the heroic and tireless leadership of Black women, historically the most oppressed group in America (our David), and the sustained fearless energy of young Black people in resistance for the last 6-8 years (the sling shot), we are now free to go. This is what we won on November 3, and Black women, figuratively speaking, are holding the severed head that proves it.
Mike Jones is a member of The St. Louis American’s editorial board.