The artistic image is not intended to represent the thing itself, but, rather, the reality of the force the thing contains.
— James Baldwin
In his 1980 collection, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, the Czech-born author Milan Kundera evoked the diligence — sometimes grimly comical, more often just grim — with which the Soviet Bloc regimes of the Cold War era went about reordering history to suit their political ends. Kundera recounted a pivotal moment in Czechoslovakian history that took place when he was a young man: culmination of the bloodless coup that consolidated the Communist takeover of the country.
On that frigid February day in 1948, Communist Party Chairman Klement Gottwald “stepped out on the balcony of a Baroque Palace in Prague to harangue hundreds of thousands of citizens massed in Old Town Square.” Among several other high party officials clustered around Gottwald on the balcony was one named Vladimir Clementis.
It was snowing as Gottwald stepped forward to speak, and Clementis thoughtfully removed his fur hat and placed it on his leader’s bare head. The state propaganda apparatus, Kundera recalled, distributed “hundreds of thousands” of copies of a photograph taken during the speech. The image appeared “on posters and in schoolbooks and museums,” and “every child” in Czechoslovakia was familiar with it.
Four years later, Clementis was dead, hanged for treason in a purge by the Gottwald regime. “The propaganda section,” we are told, “immediately made him vanish from history” — including, of course, all of its subsequent reproductions of the famous photograph.
Where Clementis stood, there is only the bare palace wall, wrote Kundera. Nothing remains of Clementis but the fur hat on Gottwald’s head.
I thought about this story on a recent Monday morning, as I stood in the lobby of another governmental palace, the Jefferson County Courthouse in downtown Birmingham. I was studying alternately the two tall and striking murals that face each other across the lobby’s expanse. They have been there since 1931, the year they were painted by the Chicago-based artist John W. Norton, who upon his death three years later, from stomach cancer, was memorialized by The Chicago Tribune as “one of the most distinguished mural painters in the country.”
Titled Old South and New South, Norton’s murals — done in the distinctive Modernist style that flourished in the Art Deco era and through the Great Depression — reflect the region’s transition from an agrarian society to an industrial one; from cotton to steel, one might say. The artist’s depiction of the societal structures of the antebellum South and the South as it was in 1931 are tellingly accurate.
Start with the domination of each mural by a towering representation of the white elite class. In the Old South mural, that is a woman, the embodiment of the Southern aristocratic feminine ideal. She stands over a scene of plantation fields stretching away from a columned mansion, rough slave cabins near the field’s edge. Two white men on horseback — presumably the landowner and his hired overseer — ride across the field, while a black man and three black women pick cotton.
The New South — the South of which Birmingham’s very existence was an undeniable harbinger — is represented by a square-jawed man clad in bespoke suit and tie and wearing a casually battered fedora. Grasping a set of blueprints, he casts a steely gaze into the western distance. Beneath his figure are the smokestacks of an iron furnace, a billow of industrial smoke and fire, an electric relay tower, a freight train plying its way along the track.
In the extreme foreground of this scene, four white workers and a single black one toil in the bowels of a furnace. It’s brilliant shorthand for both the exploitation of poor whites in the industrial economy and the increasingly codified marginalization of blacks from job opportunities, equal pay and social justice — and in Southern society in general.
All of this raises a couple of questions: Is there anything in either of these paintings that does not depict the realities of the times represented? Could there be a more apt non-verbal expression of the reality of Birmingham itself at that given point in both America’s history and its own, much shorter, one?
My answer to both questions would be in the negative. I don’t see the murals in our courthouse as idealizing either slave owning culture or the Jim Crow industrialists who built fortunes on the backs of working people of both colors. I see Norton’s work instead as snapshots of those cultures, images of the implacable Southern psyche that illustrated, more than anything else, how little systemic change had come to the region in the space of nearly a century-and-a-half.
I don’t think that’s a bad thing to be reminded of, then or now. Do you want to know why I feel that way? Because John Norton’s work is in keeping with what American history tells us. And because I have the intellectual curiosity to explore the history of the country — and the region, and the state, and the city — that I love, and for which I fear.
As Norton certainly knew, the dominion of the elite over the financial, natural and human resources of the South was deeply rooted and near-monolithic. In making this the central motif of the courthouse mural project, he was relying on two things: the close interrelations that emerged from the juxtaposition of the Old South and the New; and the knowledge of Southern history that a given viewer brings to the viewing.
Norton was presenting history. But he was also commenting on that history in a subtly subversive way.
He was representing the reality of the force contained by white supremacy.
That’s the way I see it, anyhow. There are those who hold another view, and who have been making their views known publicly. That includes the president of the Metro Birmingham Branch of the NAACP, along with three of the five members of the Jefferson County Commission, all of whom are calling for removal of the Norton murals from the courthouse. The proposed grounds for removal is that the murals are racist, and that the racism they depict is perpetuated by their very presence on public property.
While I understand the basis of that point of view, I cannot agree with the accompanying implication that history — nor art — is something that should be kept from sight simply for conveying essential truths about its subject matter. History is meant to be remembered and preserved. It is not meant to be altered, nor abridged, nor adulterated. Not Photoshopped.
By the logic employed by those who would remove the murals from our courthouse — or, to give a nod to another simmering controversy, the memorial to Confederate war dead in Linn Park — Birmingham has a lot of tearing down to do. The Alabama Theatre will have to go, as will the Lyric across the street, which is really too bad, given that so many corporate and personal donations, and so much nonprofit and volunteer support, have been expended in preserving and promoting these monuments to the days of segregation.
We’ll have to tear down Birmingham City Hall, too. Did you know that Bull Connor’s office was there when he was on the city commission?
One sign of a mature society is its ability to process and embrace and learn from its own history. Would not this fractured and fractious community be better served by that approach? Rather, say, than remove the murals, why not install an explanatory plaque, perhaps even some interactive display, that informs viewers of the history behind the murals and the history that produced them — and that invites them to reflect on the progress that has occurred since the murals were painted, and the distance we still have to travel on the road to better human relations.
Why don’t we engage the people of Jefferson County in their history? Why can’t we create opportunities to unite our community, rather than perpetually defining ourselves by our divisions?
Earlier this year, I talked about the importance of historical memory with Bryan Stevenson, the lawyer and social justice advocate who founded the Montgomery-based Equal Justice Initiative. Stevenson pointed out countries where displaying — and embracing — unpleasant aspects of history has been integral to healing, understanding and progress. He mentioned Rwanda and the truth and reconciliation commissions established to deal with that country’s genocides, and Germany, where natives and visitors are compelled to confront the history of the Holocaust.
“In Alabama,” Stevenson chuckled ruefully, “we sort of do the opposite of that. Even to the extent that we memorialize the Civil Rights Movement, it happens through this idea of Civil Rights tourism, where we emphasize only those aspects of the narrative that we agree we can feel good about.”
Confronting unpleasant history is hard, Stevenson acknowledged. But it is absolutely essential to overcoming that history — and to building a stronger, more inclusive community for the future.
“It’s all how you answer that cultural challenge,” he told me.
That is the challenge that awaits us, as we in Birmingham and Jefferson County continue to seek our individual and collective ways in this world, and to arrive at some shared vision of who we are and what we want our community to be. I believe we can do that, but I don’t believe it will happen if we choose to divest ourselves of our history, and to try to erase the public memory of formative events in its development.
We should have more faith in ourselves than that.