The Memorial for Peace and Justice — a critic’s analysis

June 4th, 2018

 

Johnathon Kelso for The New York Times

“Raise Up,” a sculpture by Hank Willis Thomas, on the grounds of the Memorial for Peace and Justice

 

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     In the June 4 New York Times, the art critic Holland Cotter describes the new National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama as an artistic opportunity to “encourage truth-telling far and wide.”

     The Memorial is one of two newly opened sites in the city (the other is the Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration) created by Bryan Stevenson, director of the non-profit advocacy group the Equal Justice Initiative and author of the best-selling book Just Mercy, a powerfully-told indictment of the American criminal justice system.

     Cotter writes that both sites address their subjects “in a way unusual until recently for American institutions: with a truth-telling, uplift-free prosecutorial directness. And both approach it by different means.

     “The Memorial for Peace and Justice does so visually, through its design. Conceived as a single immense installation, it’s dedicated to more than 4,000 African-Americans who were lynched by white Americans, and evokes their deaths in a language of stripped-down abstract sculpture. The Legacy Museum does its commemorative work in the opposite way, through an accumulation of detailed data, a near-overwhelming amount it, placing lynching within a broader context of white-on-black terrorism that goes back to the trans-Atlantic slave trade, in which Montgomery played a role, and forward to the warehousing of black men in prisons today.”

     Cotter, as art critic, describes several of the sculptures within the grounds of the Memorial, including 800 “stele-like, 6-foot-tall rusted steel mini-monuments” that “represent the victims of lynching” within a “landscaped site” that “recalls the garden cemeteries of 19th-century America, which functioned as sculpture parks of mortuary art and meditative retreats. But it also brings to mind a gallows hill and Golgotha. Placidity is not, ultimately, the prevailing mood.”

     Cotter’s excellent piece is an artistic assessment of how we strive to appropriately remember some of our country’s most despicable and shameful behavior — even as modern-day America creates its own horrific racist history future generations will one day be challenged to memorialize.

     If you have an interest in this wrenching topic, in 2003 I interviewed Laura Wexler, author of Fire in a Canebrake:  The Last Mass Lynching in America, a horrifying event that took place in Georgia on the brink of the civil rights movement, and a haunting meditation on race, history, and the struggle for truth.  You can read the interview by clicking here.

 

 

Johnathon Kelso for The New York Times

 Monuments representing the victims of lynching

 

 

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