My New Book!

My New Book!
My New Book!

Thursday, November 17, 2022

November 17, 2022: Public Art: The Harriet Wilson Statue

[On November 13, 1982, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial was unveiled in Washington, DC. So for its 40th anniversary, I’ll AmericanStudy the Wall and four other unique examples of public art. Share your thoughts on these & any other public art projects you’d highlight!]

On how a wonderful recent statue corrects a wrong and makes the case for right (and writing).

I previously wrote about Fern Cunningham’s Harriet Wilson Memorial Sculpture in this post on southern New Hampshire’s phenomenal Black Heritage Trail. Check it out and then come on back for some additional thoughts, please.

Welcome back! Some of the most persistent historical myths I’ve encountered among students up here in Massachusetts/New England (and I have to believe they’re nationwide) is that the state, region, and even the entire North were less racist (if not overtly anti-racist), more anti-slavery, generally more enlightened on such issues than their Southern counterparts. There are all sorts of ways to challenge those myths, including remembering histories like those of Revolutionary-era enslaved people and the 1830s near-lynching of William Lloyd Garrison on the streets of Boston (or, y’know, the late 20th centuries histories of virulent Bostonian racism). But the stories of individuals can often resonate more intimately and deeply than those of broader historical communities and issues, and there are few individuals whose story more powerfully reveals the layers of racism and prejudice in early 19th century New England than that of Harriet Wilson. This striking statue, like the Harriet Wilson Project that funded it, can help American audiences, including but not at all limited to students, connect to and learn those individual and collective stories.

While Harriet Wilson was certainly victimized by those attitudes and issues, however, she was most definitely not a victim. That was true of her inspiring life, and it was even more true of the most impressive part of that life: her writing and publication of her autobiographical novel Our Nig: Sketches from the Life of a Free Black (1859). That groundbreaking book is one of those that every American student should be exposed to, and an element of her story that the statue foregrounds powerfully through both the key detail of the book in Wilson’s hand (which I think purposefully parallels the child she holds with her other hand—these were her two creations and legacies) and the single word description of Wilson as “Author” on the base. I know it’s the Lit Prof bias in me showing, but I’d say we need more public art of American authors, and there’s no existing statue that I’d point to as a better model than the Harriet Wilson Memorial Sculpture.

Last public art tomorrow,


PS. What do you think? Other public art projects you’d highlight?

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