Some people don’t view Pittsburgh’s Stephen Foster statue as racist. Those people would be wrong.
Yeah, I’m going there. Stay with me.
The statue, which depicts a borderline caricature of a black musician in tattered clothing playing the banjo at the feet of a regal, well-dressed Stephen Collins Foster — who is often touted as the Father of American Music — will soon be relocated. The city has plans to install in its place a statue of a black woman significant to Pittsburgh’s history.
The Foster statue has been a subject of debate in the city for decades. Damon Young, the co-founder of Very Smart Brothas, has called it “the most racist statue in America,” with the depiction of the black musician as “the most ridiculous magical Negro you’ll ever see.”
The issue with the statue is partially how it looks but mostly what it represents.
The statue was originally commissioned in 1900 by a local newspaper that envisioned Foster “catching the inspiration for his melodies from the fingers of an old darkey reclining at his feet strumming negro airs upon an old banjo.”
Basically what we’re looking at is a white man during the slavery era taking the “inspiration” of a poor black person’s music and not only profiting from it but becoming the country’s foremost music composer because of it.
If you ever wonder what “privilege” and “appropriation” mean, this statue primely illustrates both.
The appropriation of black people’s music has a long, painful history in America.
Last year, I read “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass” for the first time. The whole book is a must-read for all Americans, but the chapter about slaves singing absolutely gutted me. It also gave me a deeper understanding of why appropriating the music of black Americans is such a long-standing and problematic issue. Douglass wrote of slave songs:
“Every tone was a testimony against slavery, and a prayer to God for deliverance from chains … The mere recurrence to those songs, even now, afflicts me; and while I am writing these lines, an expression of feeling has already found its way down my cheek. To those songs I trace my first glimmering conception of the dehumanizing character of slavery. I can never get rid of that conception.”
Douglass described the tendency of people — particularly the supposedly more enlightened northerners — to misconstrue the nature of black people’s singing:
“I have often been utterly astonished, since I came to the north, to find persons who could speak of the singing, among slaves, as evidence of their contentment and happiness. It is impossible to conceive of a greater mistake. Slaves sing most when they are most unhappy. The songs of the slave represent the sorrows of his heart; and he is relieved by them, only as an aching heart is relieved by its tears … I have often sung to drown my sorrow, but seldom to express my happiness.”
Douglass’ narrative was published in 1845, two decades before slavery ended and about the same time Foster began writing his famous songs. If Foster was really feeling inspired from black people “strumming negro airs,” then he was profiting from black Americans’ artistic expression of pain at a time when they couldn’t do so themselves.
Some claim Foster was a fairly decent guy for his time, seeking to humanize slaves and not glorify the antebellum South in his songs. On the other hand, he was knee-deep in the blackface minstrel phenomenon, and some of his lyrics are racially charged to say the least.
“But that was a different era!” people might say. Yes, it was. But in this era, it makes sense to move that statue to a place where it doesn’t serve as a painful public reminder of our country’s history of racial injustice.
The question we should ask is “What is the purpose of a public statue?”
Unlike art for private consumption and enjoyment, a public statue traditionally honors someone or something. It’s a way to memorialize a person or an event — to say “We want to not only remember this person’s place in history but commemorate them.”
Statues are not, as many seem to argue, a history lesson. There are no statues of Adolf Hitler in Germany for a reason, and it’s not because the German people intend to forget his part in history. It’s irresponsible to keep a statue that depicts an ugly aspect of history in a way that doesn’t make clear how ugly it was.
Foster already has an entire memorial museum in Pittsburgh, so replacing this statue will not affect his legacy there. What it will do is remove a visual glorification of black people’s oppression as well as open up a space to honor a black woman who has been significant to history.
The mayor has asked the public to weigh in on which black woman should be honored with a new statue.
There are no public statues or memorials honoring black women in Pittsburgh, a city where an estimated 1 in 5 residents is black. “The City of Pittsburgh believes in inclusivity and equality and ensuring that all can see themselves in the art around them,” the mayor’s office wrote in a statement. “It is imperative then that our public art reflect the diversity of our city and that we accordingly represent our diverse heroes.”
Some suggestions so far include pianist Patricia Prattis Jennings, the first black woman to sign to a full contract with a major American symphony orchestra; Helen Faison, the first black female superintendent in Pittsburgh; Gwendolyn J. Elliot, Pittburgh’s first black female police commander; suffragette Daisy Elizabeth Lampkin, who was the first woman elected to the national board of the NAACP; and Hazel B. Garland, the first black woman to head a major newspaper chain.
For many in Pittsburgh, the removal of the Stephen Foster statue would have been enough. But replacing the statue with one honoring a black woman is a thoughtful step forward — one that other cities with controversial statues would be wise to follow.