Saturday, February 23, 2013

How far we have come

I originally posted this in 2009
one of my very best
this post and the seven that follow are for black history month

Barry Noreen’s July 19, 2009 column puzzled over the deeper meaning of public art placement. In that vein, I offer as another such example “Journey”, the somber bronze by Denver sculptor Michael Brohman currently on exhibit at the entrance of the Terry R. Harris Judicial Complex. The hulking ship -- formed from the bodies of more than a thousand brown human figurines -- is atypically gloomy, and a complete departure from the traditional “Art on the Streets” fare.

A study of “how we as individuals and as members of a group view ourselves in relationship to the practice of slavery,” Brohman was inspired by a design plan for slave ship “tight packing”, which can be found at Awesome Stories; the authentic historical documents there are at once astonishing and irrefutable, leaving readers with a chilling enlightenment.

A sculpting instructor at the University of Colorado/Denver, Brohman’s expertise with cast iron, bronze and steel has earned him considerable renown; at the same time, his incorporation of animal manure and body parts, along with his series of mutant “Babylopes” and “Chicababies”, have earned him some much deserved notoriety.

Brohman is no stranger to controversy: In 2006, he refused to move his life-sized sculpture of a nude man sporting an erection from the front window of a Denver art gallery – half a block from a Catholic church. Claiming the piece was a fitting allegory of his own experience as a gay Catholic, Brohman instead suggested that passers-by view it as a teaching tool for inclusiveness.

Perhaps the Gazette would benefit from taking a long, hard look at said teaching tool, since its coverage of the “Art on the Streets” exhibit blatantly promoted “Journey” ahead of all the other participating works. In the early-June Sidestreets article “‘Journey’ arrives”, the Gazette hyped both art and artist exclusively. A month later on July 12, 2009, the Gazette again promoted the piece, positioning it top and center of the Sunday front page. Inside, on page one of the Life section, second-place winner “Journey” was again top and center, while first-place “Paper Clips” and third-place “Evolution of Flora” languished at the bottom.

Art on the Streets is presented by US Bank, Norwood Development, and G.E. Johnson in concert with Downtown Partnership of Colorado Springs and its affiliate, Community Ventures, Inc. -- movers and shakers who make every decision with care and consideration. Make no mistake: committees were formed, questions were deliberated, and votes were taken pursuant to the selection and placement of each and every piece of art currently gracing the streets of downtown Colorado Springs.

Racism against blacks is the direct result of slavery, and despite the passage of half a millennium, remains a painful fact of life today.   Nowhere is this truth more evident than in state and federal Department of Corrections statistics. Reflecting deep-seated institutional biases, blacks are overrepresented at every stage of the justice system. While the majority of arrests involve whites, blacks are more likely to be charged and sentenced to custody, even when referred for the same offence; and in Colorado, where blacks comprise just 3.4 percent of the general population, they are twice as likely as Hispanics and twelve times likelier than whites to be incarcerated. Notes author Paul Street, America is “filling its expanding number of cellblocks with an ever-rising sea of black people monitored by predominantly white overseers."

Black, white or otherwise, it would seem that people of all racial persuasions these days hold less and less faith in blacks generally, regardless of gender, sexual orientation, or age.  From every camp come hackneyed wails of under-privilege and poverty, and endless repetition of predictions most pessimistic - truly, is there any wonder these bleak pronouncements on the destiny of blacks so often become self-fulfilling prophecies?  Indeed, if the powers that be in Colorado Springs cared even a whit about the destinies of its black populace, would they have chosen to close down eight elementary schools in primarily low-income neighborhoods, preferring rather to haphazardly warehouse the less affluent in ancient, crumbling buildings?  Is there really anyone out there who still believes that a young black mind is a terrible thing to waste, or even remembers the far off time when it was?

It's at once sad and absurd: these know-it-all elitists, patiently paving the road to hell with their good intentions and college book learnin'.  One would think that by now, these diversity-celebrating, free-thinking, tree-hugging, fur-hating liberals would acknowledge, embrace and accept their own inner-simpletons, mindlessly yearning to be free.  Tacky and ever bumbling backwards thanks to fads of the moment and chronic foot-in-mouth syndrome, Harry Reid is really not an  exception, but rather the norm.  Why, only yesterday one of our own local experts, the Gazette's education writer Sue McMillin, astutely remarked that where children of color are concerned, even "(they) know what the statistics show.  As black teens, they're more likely to drop out of school and end up behind bars than their (sic) whites."  Well put, Sue - no doubt that "achievement gap" will be closed faster than you can say "light-skinned African American with no negro dialect."

In terms of scope and duration, slavery is to America what the Holocaust is to Germany -- the darkest stain on our national history. Indeed, “Journey” is reminiscent of the staggering mountain of shoes at the New York Holocaust museum, and the twisted crush of bodies frozen in death and metal at Dachau. (As an aside, most Holocaust monuments are the work of Jewish artists; the accidental truth here is that “Journey” would be less offensive were Brohman a black gay man – discrediting arguments that equate the institutionalized racism against blacks to the GLBT struggle for inclusion). A fitting display as a Memorial Park monument to the countless lives torn asunder, perhaps; but “Journey” is entirely inappropriate at its current location on the plaza of the county court house.

After making my displeasure known, Judy Noyes of Community Ventures responded that (paraphrased) "since slavery was abolished in the courts, the installment of Journey at the county court house is entirely appropriate as a symbol of freedom, justice and liberty."  Preposterous in its entirety.  Let us run this flimsy logic through a quick test:  lynching was abolished in the courts; would it be similarly appropriate to have before our court house a bronze tree decorated with miniature black people hanging by their necks?  I should say not - it's already painful enough to know that so many of those lynchings took place on court house steps.  

“Mr. Terry R. Harris must be spinning in his grave right now from this black eye on his legacy,” I mused, and wondered at his identity -- a much beloved judge, perhaps, or officer killed in the line of duty? But time has apparently altered the rules of decorum, and gone are the days when buildings were named for people to honor their lives after death…because the former county commissioner is still very much with us.

Since there’s still an opportunity to do so, I go straight to the top in my search for redress:

Mr. Harris, in case you hadn't noticed, there is a boat made out of black people sitting right in front of your own personal monument.  Somewhere, someone discontent with the archaic thumb-of-the-nose is guilty of coordinating and staging an elaborate sham celebration of diversity that pretends to honor blacks, and instead flips them the bird and spits on their graves - effectively transforming the Mister into Massa. I prithee, Sir: right this wrong.

Your friend,


  1. Spydra,

    Always enjoy your articles. Keep up the good work - you're an asset to the community.

  2. Terry Harris is alive. He was the county adminstrator. Retired in 2004. Now a professor.