Black History Still Needs to Be Made
There has been nothing less abstract to me than the falling of monuments this past year. That’s because I happen to be married to a man whose passions include resurrecting black heroes from the annals of history, sculpting them in clay, and casting them in bronze. Born to Haitian parents in New York City, Branly Cadet was doing this work long before the American public turned a spotlight on the nation’s monuments. Long before anyone besides a few historians, city officials, or activists cared much about the question of which figures and narratives were celebrated and which weren’t.
In 2006, Branly finished sculpting Adam Clayton Powell Jr., who was chair of the House Education and Labor Committee and responsible for introducing important legislation including equal pay for equal work and anti-poverty laws. At the unveiling of the ten-foot statue striding purposefully up an incline made of granite and stainless steel, a crowd of onlookers gathered in front of City Hall, including politicians and the community group responsible for commissioning the piece. After they had their pictures taken and dispersed, I glimpsed longtime Harlemites walking past and doing double takes when they spotted a monument to a black man in their midst. Their encounters with the monument were the real unveilings.
There was the old man who ambled by and shouted, “Well, look at that!” He, apparently, remembered Adam from his younger days. There were high school students who took pictures of themselves with the monument in the background long before selfies were common. There was one kid who exclaimed, “Hey, he looks like Morpheus!” This comment made me smile, as Branly had sculpted flowing coattails on Adam that resembled, yes, a superhero’s cape. As more and more people gathered round to see something of themselves being reflected back to them, I wanted to point to my husband and say, “This is the man who made that monument!” But Branly is modest and unassuming. He has never been one to crave the spotlight.
Sculptors don’t often have much of an opportunity to see what people make of their monuments. In Branly’s case, he had fewer chances to visit the site because we moved out of New York City in 2009 and headed to California where the weather was warm and where we could afford to rent a separate art studio big enough for him to work on the large-scale commissions that eventually followed. This past year, Branly unveiled two more monuments to African Americans during a time when the country suddenly started paying attention to which monuments dotted our landscapes, and more people began asking: What stories do monuments tell about America, what we value, and what/who we willfully ignore?
One of the monuments Branly made was to Jackie Robinson, which was unveiled at Dodger Stadium this past year. While Jackie Robinson is a figure who is largely known in American culture, he is frequently described as the man who broke the color line, suggesting there has to be something exceptional about a black person in order to not only make such a crossing, but also to break that line altogether. The fact is there have been many unsung talented black women and men throughout history, and the only exceptional thing in Jackie’s case was that some exceptional white folk opened the doors and allowed him passage. In other words, those who monopolized power chose to share it. What happened to Jackie Robinson’s brother best illustrates this point. Though Mack Robinson won a silver medal at the 1936 Olympics, coming in just behind Jesse Owens, and was a star athlete in his own right, he was relegated to being a janitor not because he wasn’t talented but because the gates to his advancement remained closed. So the reason we don’t have more monuments to African Americans in this country is NOT because there have been only a handful of exceptional black people but because there have been so few serious and sustained efforts to shine a light on their contributions.
Let’s look at educator and activist Octavius Valentine Catto. In Catto’s case, it took 146 years before anyone dedicated a monument to him and that happened only because a committed Irish-American politician in Philadelphia lobbied for it for ten long years. At the unveiling ceremony in front of City Hall, a segment of the city, including an entire church congregation, came out to see a true reflection of the city’s history being unveiled for the first time. For those who’d never heard of Catto, they learned that he fought to ratify the 15th amendment, which gave black men the right to vote; and he fought to desegregate the trolley car. They learned that he insisted on better education for black students and built powerful coalitions with women’s groups, Quakers, and others in the fight for social justice — and that he was gunned down on the day he was headed to the ballot box to vote. They learned that his funeral procession was nearly as large as Lincoln’s. They learned that the past — and Catto’s place in it — had paved the way towards our present. They learned that they, too, could shape the future.
Monuments are powerful, for they reflect a deep honoring of who someone was (or is) and what values they championed. They also reflect possibility. The day Catto was installed, I visited the site and looked up in astonishment towards the sculpture hovering precariously in the air before a crane gently lowered it into place. I’d never before seen an installation of a monument. Apparently, neither had the many onlookers who’d gathered to watch throughout the day. Some had come as early as 7am and stayed until evening; others were parents who brought their children to witness the first monument to an African American in Philadelphia. One woman, a native Philadelphian, told me she’d been waiting for this moment her whole life. Some were tourists; others were college students who’d never heard of Catto; some were skate boarders who skated by only to stop, turn, and look back. One man rode past on his bike and stopped to stare before he shouted from across the street: “Hey, that guy looks like me! That makes me want to do better!” I witnessed many extraordinary moments like this as I haunted the memorial sight during the day and night in order to see the monument in different light. One evening, I saw a man circling the monument in tears. He seemed to be praying. I watched him for a while, and only when he left did I walk towards the statue. To my surprise, I saw that inside each of Catto’s bronze palms were Gerbera Daisies (also known as African daisies) as if someone — perhaps the man who’d been praying — had left them there. I couldn’t help but wonder about the secret pilgrimages that so many have taken in order to seek out a truer reflection of history.
Sculpting black historical figures has been a matter of making such pilgrimages for Branly. When he was sculpting Adam, he visited the Schomberg Research Library where he poured through hundreds of photographs of Adam Clayton Powell Jr., met with his son, and interviewed his contemporaries in order to capture something of the man. When he sculpted Jackie Robinson, he devoured books and movies about Jackie before flying to New York City to meet the family. And when he was tasked with sculpting Octavius Catto — for whom only a single photograph exists — Branly flew to Philadelphia to walk the same streets Catto once walked. He visited the site of the school Catto attended and went about reading the singular tome that exists on Catto’s life. As he read from this book, I remember him frequently remarking, “Change takes time.” He was inspired, I think, by accounts of Catto’s efforts to desegregate the horse drawn street car a full century before Rosa Parks stood up to segregation. He was awed by the robust coalitions Catto had managed to build with various communities. And even though he was sculpting an individual, Branly was struck by this fact: it takes many people — and many voices — to enact change.
I barely saw my husband for the months he worked on these monuments. Often, he’d come home at 4am covered in clay dust and fall asleep on the couch. In his studio, which is around the corner from where we live, I sometimes dropped by to see him while he worked on Robinson and Catto. To enter Branly’s studio was a matter of encountering his literary mood of the day. When he wasn’t listening to music, he was listening to books on Audible by writers like Angela Davis, James Baldwin, Michelle Alexander, Bryan Stevenson, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Roxanne Gay, Michael Eric Dyson, Edwidge Dantikat, Paul Beatty, Isabelle Wilkerson, and more.
Branly’s studio was filled with mannequins, maquettes, and mirrors and was always spotless and orderly. On the walls were large prints of Jackie Robinson, black civil war era soldiers, and Catto’s face and body at different angles. He used them as reference photographs. One afternoon, when Branly was examining a large photograph of black Union soldiers for a relief he needed to sculpt, he spent a long time staring into each man’s eyes. “Each face has to be different,” Branly insisted. “Each person has a story.” It mattered to him immensely that none of the faces he sculpted were rendered generic or just like the others. It mattered to him that he honor each individual. It mattered to him that what he made not reflect a carelessness he’d seen far too often in other representations of blackness. It mattered to him that his work convey love, care, and rigorous attention not only to the person he was sculpting, but also to what that person’s contributions signified for African Americans and all Americans.
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There were many times that Branly was overcome by a sense of deep responsibility while he sculpted. He seemed to be wrestling with the burden of representation even though, in its most literal sense, sculpting is about representation. Clearly, there are journeys that some artists must move through in order to create something of beauty. Such journeying or creation requires, in part, a reconciliation with our history and its legacy. It requires a trip into the deep recesses of the heart. As a sometimes witness to Branly’s process, I can say only that I long for a storied landscape that is just and true. I long to see more monuments to blacks — Indigenous people, women, and various other groups that have been relegated to the margins for far too long. Anyone who cares about justice surely recognizes that it’s impossible to create a future if you can’t properly see the past. And properly seeing requires making the invisible visible. That’s why, when I came across a recent call by Mic.com to create monuments to African Americans, I felt a surge of hope. Mic’s invocation of our imagination — and our participation in creating a just and true storied-landscape — is one way to remake not only our history, but also our present and future. This invocation is a matter of call and response. Here’s the call: if we can first envision a storied landscape — and what kind of stories need to be told — we can respond by insisting upon and supporting their creation. And, in that process, we can remember that public monuments are made for and by the public, and that so much more of black history is still waiting to be made.