John Hoffman. 6/24/20, Nathaniel Square, 62 Alexander Street [Photo: David Kramer] Several days ago, someone removed some of the red paint on the hands and face of the sculpture. See On the defacing of Reflecting in Nathaniel Square and restoring the grave of “America’s first professional racist” in Mt. Hope Cemetery and An Open Invitation to a Conversation in Nathaniel Square
On the Spray Painting of Reflecting by John Hoffman, Highland Park Neighborhood resident & teacher of English
I read An Open Invitation to a Conversation in Nathaniel Square several days ago and have just sorted out how to say what I felt needed more exploration.
The article rightly seeks to contextualize what happened in the context of Rochester and national conversations about public art. The piece points out that the statue was placed in 2008 as part of a renovation project for Nathaniel Square intended to “revitalize the neighborhood” and help shift the square away from a “drug-transaction corner.”
In 2008, I was not part of this neighborhood. My question is: What did this group of volunteers looking to revitalize the neighborhood look like?
I honestly don’t know and would invite more information, because I think it is important to how we understand what happened. “[R]evitaliz[ing] the neighborhood” sounds very much like urban renewal campaigns which continue to displace Black communities to enable infrastructure and White resettlement. While shutting down drug markets improves community health, replacing these spaces with spaces designed exclusively or disproportionately by White people continues a trend of societally-created dispossession that the current movement for Black lives seeks to address.
Open Invitation spends a fair amount of time discussing the intent and aesthetic choices of the artist. This is a breath of fresh air in a society that undervalues artists’ work, creating situations where they must often be pragmatic and consider what is profitable. Kettavong’s choices in rendering his subject right-sized Rochester, painting him as frail, putting him at or below the level of the viewer, and inviting us to consider his failures — an admirable goal. Kettavong’s intent is, as the article holds, substantively different than Confederate monuments, which were designed to intimidate Black people and remind them of the White power structure.
What is it about Nathaniel Rochester, though, that is valuable as a subject for public display?
Rochester was a businessman who contributed to early settlement of our city and influenced the Erie Canal’s path to enable the city’s long-term development. Rochester accomplished this development using the labor of an enslaved people. The wealth of his family was built on their backs. He was able to gain political influence partly through the money he stole from the slaves he owned and traded.
Placing a statue in a public place suggests there is something valuable in considering that person’s example. But, using Rochester as a subject seems jarring given the context in which he is placed. Rochester the city remains one of the most segregated areas in the nation. The United States has not taught repudiation of slavery and racism’s evils in the way Germany has repudiated the Nazis. Nor have there been truth and reconciliation commissions successful in addressing its many, continuing ills. There is no context for many community members to see this statue in the way the artist might desire, as an example of oppression that we must learn to remove from our society. We should consider this in evaluating the statue’s aesthetic impact.
The choice of subject for Reflecting continues to focus on a wealthy, White, male perspective. It joins a trend in the larger society of focusing on wealthy, White, and male stories to the exclusion of other groups. George Cassidy Payne’s commentary essay attached to the original article focuses on the modern-day evils that we allow to continue, in which we are complicit. One of these evils is artistic and media representation that erases Black people and defines the landscape of evils our society is willing to address.Our role as community members requires us to recognize the evils we participate in and act against them as we are able. Payne is right that forgiveness is a psychological and spiritual necessity for love, but what we need in the public square is to glorify those who act in and from love: those who recognize the evils around them and try to address them. We, neighbors, can be that community tomorrow. We may have failed today, but we can do the work, and look to those that have already.
I propose a first step: listen to Black people. We cannot undo the harms of our society without taking seriously the views of those affected. The Black voices in An Open Invitation to a Conversation in Nathaniel Square are conspicuous in their calls for removal.
— JHUPDATE: On Wednesday night, 6/24, the statue was cleaned by the city of Rochester. EDITORS POSTSCRIPT
In 1934, Bryant Baker designed a model statue of Rochester to be 9 feet tall and made of bronze. The statue was never constructed, probably due to the Depression, and ultimately destroyed by Baker many years later. Note the masterful and upright pose, including what might be Rochester’s Revolutionary War rifle, in sharp contrast to Kettavong’s rendering of a frail Rochester, positioned at or below the level of the viewer, and inviting us to consider his failures.