Making Visible: Hanford Sturgeon and Indigenous Nuclear Art

The artist Paul Klee long ago remarked, “Art does not show what is visible. Instead it makes visible.” Klee’s rather cryptic insight is beautifully illustrated by one of the most remarkable works in the collections of the Michigan State University Museum, a ‘sally bag” woven basket by the Wasco (Warm Springs) Native American artist Pat Courtney Gold, who lives in mid-Oregon. In this work, the artist signals the long-term dangers posed by radioactive exposure from the Hanford nuclear facility, a massive plutonium production complex along the Columbia River, which remains the most environmentally contaminated site in our entire hemisphere.

Gold’s ancestors lived for millennia along the Columbia River, a magnificent 1,200 mile-long river that long provided abundant fish and other resources for indigenous peoples. In recent decades, Columbia river fish populations have been dangerously impacted by run-off from toxic chemicals used in large farms, and, it is widely believed in many local communities, by radioactive contamination from Hanford, which was the site of the nation’s pre-eminent plutonium production facility during World War II and the Cold War.

Producing plutonium, the core component of modern strategic nuclear weapons, generates many radioactive byproducts and other toxic chemicals. Although plutonium production at Hanford ceased in 1988, at least 160 million gallons of nuclear waste are stored in large tanks, many of which are leaking their contents. (By some estimates, Hanford has leached four times more radioactive contaminants into the surrounding ecosystem than Chernobyl.) The US Department of Energy spends over two billion dollars each year in continuing efforts to remediate nuclear waste risks at Hanford, risks which many scientists and activists fear may be intractable.

Seeing the Unseen

Building on her background in Mathematics and Physics, as well as indigenous aesthetic traditions, Gold ingeniously confronts a challenge that many contemporary artists have grappled with: how to signal the presence of ionizing radiation, which human beings cannot detect along the visible spectrum?

Gold, who has played an important role in reviving the ancient sally bag weaving tradition, often integrates classical and contemporary dynamics in her art. In keeping with Wasco conventions, the basket is framed by a ground line and a sky line, and draws on abstracted design features used in ancient sacred petroglyphs created by indigenous peoples along the Columbia. We see the repeated design of five sturgeons, fish honored by the Native peoples of the Pacific Northwest for their strength, size and longevity. The fish bear small eruptions along their sides, evoking deformities causes by environmental pollution. The bottom-most sturgeon’s deformities are laced with iridescent synthetic threads, which, the artist explains, signals the radioactive isotopes that have gradually seeped into the Columbia River system over the past seven decades. Sturgeon, as apex predators in the river, are likely to accumulate higher levels of irradiating contaminants within their bodies, and may run higher risks of genetic damage than other organisms in the river.

An indigenous spiritual leader who lives along the Columbia River near the Hanford facility once explained to me that normally the sun activates positive energy inside of all of us— in persons, animals and plants—binding us into productive circles of exchange and co-existence, so that we all radiate a life-sustaining inner light. Radiation from nuclear weapons production, he explained, has a different impact, since the creation of these weapons is driven by fear and anger. Rather than stimulating positive energy, this kind of ionizing radiation, to his mind, catalyzes negative organic activity, turning bodies against themselves in the form of cancer and related illnesses.

A Captivating Basket

Speculatively, Gold may be evoking a comparable view of things. The deformities on each sturgeon are created by the weave of the basket poking through, as it were, the stylized body of each fish. Is she subtly signaling that the prodigious energies of the Columbia River, which normally should be giving life and nutrients to these magnificent beings, are instead corrupting and penetrating their very bodies? The shimmering quality of the river surface, which is in normal times hypnotically beautiful, here becomes, through iridescent threads, a violating energy, radiating out from within the fish feeding along the river bottom, increasingly laden with heavy metals.

Between each row of swimming fish, Gold has woven geometric designs evoking sturgeon roe, delicious source of caviar celebrated around the world. At one level, the fish egg motif reminds us of the dangers of consuming contaminated river products. At the same time, I suspect that Gold, who takes the long view of human and natural history, may be expressing a degree of hope. Each egg, after all, signals an investment in the future, and Gold may be expressing faith that, amidst all the challenges that face us and our animal brothers and sisters, life will in time prevail.

I am especially fascinated by the base of the basket, which contains three concentric circles of red, white, and blue. Gold explains that through these colors she honors those serving in the armed services in the undeclared wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. I wonder if, in addition, she is hinting at a double message about the national project. Hanford was long celebrated as critical to the national security mission; it produced the plutonium used in the Nagasaki atomic bomb near the end of World War II, and produced most of the plutonium in the US strategic nuclear reserve, which played such an important role in the Cold War. Is the artist reminding us of the long-term costs of military victory, in terms of hidden histories of mass violence and the legacies of unresolved environmental contamination at innumerable nuclear weapons testing and production sites? Hanford itself is labeled, in some government documents, as a “national sacrifice zone,” that may never be rendered entirely fit for human habitation. The sturgeon of the lower Columbia river, and by extension all of us who drink water, breathe air, and eat natural products, may long bear the invisible scars of our atomic age.

Thus, Pat Courtney Gold accomplishes what Paul Klee considered the essence of art—making visible that which was beyond conventional sight. In her captivating basket we see, with new eyes, our shared national, and global predicament. Gazing upon her shimmering glowing threads, we learn to see long-hidden energies that lurk just below the surface of our perceptions, flowing beneath an ancient life-giving river of memory.

Pat Courtney Gold discusses the “Hanford Sturgeon” basket in this video edited by Penelope Phillips: https://vimeo.com/228218542

Note: An earlier version of this essay was posted in May 2018.

Traveling Together: Slavery, Landscape, and Historical Imagination

Diverse geographical sites, which we thought we knew, can link us, in unexpected ways, to nearly forgotten histories of slavery and liberation. For several years, I have been exploring the stories of enslaved African Americans who resided, not under conditions of their own choosing, in the region now known as “Cathedral Heights,” in northwest Washington, D.C. This project, which may culminate in a museum exhibition in the D.C. area, has returned me, in unexpected ways, to the neighborhoods in which I came of age. It has been deeply fascinating, and at times startling, to re-encounter a landscape suffused with my own childhood memories and to realize the profound histories of injustice and struggle that are embedded.

I stumbled into this project when I became aware of a debate over a bay of stained glass windows in the Washington National Cathedral that commemorated Confederate generals Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson, incorporating Confederate battle flag imagery. Following the murderous rampage by a white supremacist at AME Emmanuel Church in Charleston, South Carolina in June 2015, the appropriateness of these memorial windows became subject to public debate.


As I began to research the history of these windows, I learned that they had been dedicated by the United Daughters of the Confederacy in the 1950s, in the context of postwar massive white resistance to integration. The early and mid-20th century Cathedral leadership, seeking to promote “national reconciliation,” had actively invited partnership with white neo-confederate organizations as a way of binding up the wounds of the Civil War. Little appreciation was given to the pain these images would cause African Americans who visited and worshipped in what is sometimes termed the “nation’s house of prayer.” After the Charleston killings, the Cathedral critically re-examined the windows, and after a period of reflection, decided to remove them from public view.

They Knew This Land

I often visited the Cathedral growing up, but never gave the windows serious thought until the Charleston massacre. One day, staring at the stained glass, I found myself wondering precisely whose histories were, in a sense, being effaced by this imagery. Had enslaved people of African descent ever lived and worked on these grounds? Through archival inquiry, I quickly learned that a group of linked enslaved persons had in fact been held on the grounds that later became the Cathedral, and also the land that became Sidwell Friends School, where I had attended high school, located a half mile from the Cathedral.

It seemed to me urgently important to learn the names of these enslaved people and to uncover their stories. This struck me as important not only for the Cathedral, but also for Sidwell Friends, a historically Quaker institution dedicated to principles of social justice. Sidwell did not acquire The Highlands grounds until the 1950s, nearly a century after Emancipation, yet the institution is heir, in complex senses, to the labor undertaken on these grounds by enslaved persons, whose memories need to be actively honored. The Cathedral too, has had a proud Civil Rights history since the 1960s, and its leadership is committed to commemorating persons of color associated with its beautiful landscape, which overlooks the capital city from one of its highest promontories, Mount St. Albans.

Encountering the Brooks Family

I am particularly fascinated by the family of William and Sarah Brooks, each born around 1825. William was, I believe, purchased with his mother, Ann, and his siblings, in 1827, by Joseph Nourse, the first Registrar of the US Treasury. Nourse by that point had acquired the land that would in the early 20th century became the Cathedral, as well as the estate known as The Highlands, that would become the Sidwell Friends upper and middle school campus. He seems to have purchased Ann and her children as slaves for his son, Charles Josephus Nourse and Charles’ bride Rebecca Morris Nourse, for whom he had also purchased The Highlands.

By 1850, William Brooks was a free man of color, employed as a coachman by the Nourses. He appears to have devoted himself to purchasing the freedom of his wife, Sarah, and their five children.
In 1862, early during the Civil War, the US Congress approved “compensated emancipation” for the enslaved people held within the District of Columbia, giving monetary payments to all slave owners in the District. (No funds were allotted to the newly freed people themselves, unless they elected to leave the United States and settle in Africa.) William, who had previously purchased his family’s freedom, petitioned Congress for compensation for manumitting his wife and children. We can tell from the petition that there was some confusion in the family about who was free and who was enslaved; Sarah initially signed as a co-owner of their children, but then her name was crossed out, and she was written in as one of the “property” for whom William was being compensated!
In October 2019, I was asked, by the National Cathedral, to present on what I had learned about the lives of enslaved people associated with the slave owning Nourses and the Cathedral-Sidwell grounds. I spoke on a deeply moving panel, “They Knew This Land: Honoring Lost Voices on Mt. Albans,” with the Native American curator, Gabi Tayac, descended from the indigenous communities that lived for millennia on the lands that later became the District of Columbia; my longtime colleague, the African American curator of history, Fath Davis Ruffins, herself a graduate of National Cathedral School, the all-female academy on the grounds of the National Cathedral; and the Rev. Cannon Kelly Brown Douglas, the Canon Theologian of the Cathedral.

At the end of the discussion, I was asked if I might be able to trace the descendants of the enslaved families, who labored on these lands. I then got to work. Thus far, here’s what I have learned.

Post-Emancipation

After the Civil War, the Brooks family settled a little bit north of The Highlands, in the Tenleytown neighborhood. Some family members worshipped, parish records reveal, at St. Alban’s Episcopal Church, D.C. built in the 1850s, which continues to stand adjacent to the National Cathedral. Others in the family were parishioners at Holy Trinity Church in Georgetown (also known as the Chapel of St. Ignatius), the oldest continually operating Catholic Church in the District of Columbia, adjacent to Georgetown College (later Georgetown University). In 1873, William and Sarah Brooks’ son William Henry Brooks (b, 1851) was married at Holy Trinity to Laura Dover, the young woman who lived next door to the Brooks family at what is now 39th and Warren Streets. (Laura’s family had been enslaved by a local butcher, Lewis Kengla, who resided near Nourse’s estate at The Highlands; the Kenglas, too, were closely associated with Holy Trinity.) Two years later, William Brook’s wife Sarah died. A record at Mt. Zion Cemetery in north Georgetown indicates Sarah A. Brooks age 45, b. 1829, who was Cook at “Mrs. Nourse (Highlands) btw Gtown & Tentleytown “ died on 8 May 1875. Her undertaker was Jos. F Birch and she was buried at Mt. Zion. .

After Sarah’s death, other family members continued in freedom to work for the former slave owners, the Nourses. An 1885 photograph, now in the Sidwell Friends archives, depicts a “Rachel Brooks, cook,” seated with family members behind The Highlands big house, now known as Zartman House, Sidwell’s Administration building. (The location where the photograph was shot, behind the big house, is precisely the spot where I graduated from high school in June 1979, nearly a century after the picture was taken.)

The 1908 will, in turn, of Mary Nourse, an unmarried daughter of Charles Josephus Nourse, who lived for many decades at The Highlands, leaves bequests for many of the family’s African American servants (some of them previously enslaved). Among these are Ada Robinson Brooks, the second wife of William and Sarah Brooks’ son William Henry Brooks, and Ada’s young children, Jeanette and Joseph.

Over the course of my historical research, I’ve come to learn that the Brooks family resided at a number of locations that I knew well growing up, and which I have come to re-encounter through other research projects. Ada Brooks and her daughter Jeanette Brooks (Wilson) lived for many years down the hill from the Cathedral grounds, at 32nd Street and Q Street, in Georgetown, adjacent to the elegant mansion at Tudor Place, just around the corner from my late mother’s home, where I lived my senior year at Sidwell Friends.

As it happens, I undertook historical research a decade ago at Tudor Place, the family seat of the slave owning Peters’ family, who were close kin of Martha Custis Washington and Robert E. Lee. (General Lee famously spent his last night in Washington, D.C. at Tudor Place, before returning to Virginia.) I traced the enslaved people who had been forcefully relocated from Mount Vernon, where they had been held by Martha Custis Washington, to the Peter’s family property in Georgetown: in some cases, these families were torn apart in slave sales. Some family members were transferred to Seneca quarry in upper Montgomery County, Maryland, where they quarried the red sandstone out of which the Smithsonian Castle building was constructed. As of this writing, it does not appear that the Brooks family worked for the Peter family, but I am still fascinated by their close interconnections in this historically-rich neighborhood.

I’ve also traced the children of John Thomas Brooks, another son of William and Sarah Brooks. One of John Thomas’ daughters, Mary Brooks, married Lewis Waters and lived at 1641 “V” Street, N.W., just a few blocks north of my father’s brownstone in the Dupont Circle neighborhood.

Frank Brooks and his Descendants

William Henry Brooks and Laura Dover Brooks’ first-born child was Francis (“Frank”) Denecker Brooks, whom I presume was named for the respected Jesuit priest and educator, Rev. Francis Xavier Denecker (c. 1810-1879). Rev. Denecker appears to have been connected with nearby Georgetown College and Holy Trinity, where William Henry and Laura were married; perhaps ministered to the Brooks family.

In 1895 Frank married Mary Briggs, partially of Irish descent, who lived on Milk House Ford Road (later named Rock Creek Ford Road), which was the major thoroughfare through the land that is now Rock Creek Park. The couple settled next door to Mary’s parents. (As it happens, my family and I lived just by this section of the park in the mid-1960s).

After Mary’s death, Frank, in 1913, married Sarah Ann Gravett, who had been working as a domestic in the neighborhood. The family moved up the street to a house that no longer exists, built on the current location of the playground of Lafayette Elementary School, which, as it happens, my sister Bonnie and I attended in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

New Connections

As I was tracing Frank Brooks’ life, I luckily encountered genealogical research posted on ancestry.com by his great grand-daughter, Mrs. Bettye Howe Saunders. Mrs. Saunders and my research has, in effect, met in the ‘middle,” linking the earlier story of slavery and emancipation with the more recent history of her family, through the figure of Frank Brooks.

Mrs. Saunders, an avid genealogist and former teacher of history, actually knew her great-grandfather, Frank Brooks, who lived into his mid-nineties. She recalls that he was well read and often quoted poetry, like many of his generation, he did not speak to his younger relations about parents and grandparents who had lived in the era of slavery.

Frank and Mary Brooks’ youngest child, Bessie Brooks, (1904-1940) moved from Washington D.C. to Rhode Island, as a young mother in the late 1920s. Bessie’s son Romeo served in the Merchant Marine and later worked as a court reporter in Philadelphia. Bessie’s daughter Bettye Gaskins grew up in Newport, RI, where she met and married the sailor, Norbert Howe, who spent his career in the US Navy. Mrs. Bettye Gaskins Howe worked as one of the nation’s first medical ward secretaries and later as a field representative for two California state assemblymen.
Bettye and Norbert’s son, the late Romeo Howe, served in the Vietnam War, and later worked as an air traffic controller and engineer. He lived in Southern California with his wife Ellen (Kotzin) and their daughter Aimee. Romeo’s sister Bettye Howe Saunders is married to the distinguished pediatrician Dr. James Saunders in the Los Angeles area.

I’m grateful that through this research I am getting to “know” Bettye Saunders’ extended family, including her husband Dr. James Saunders and their children, Jaime Saunders Archer, her husband and their eight year old son, as well as Jaime’s sister Janine Saunders Vella and her husband Chris; Romeo and Ellen Kotzin Howe’s daughter Aimee Hendle and Aimee’s husband Ed Hendle, and their children, Serena Hendle and Roman Hendle. The family members generously consented to be identified in this letter and shared the family photographs seen here.

To bring the story to the most recent generation, the 5th great grandchildren of William and Sarah Brooks include the eight year old son of Jaime Saunders Archer and her husband, and Serena and Roman, the children of Aimee and Ed Hendle. These young people are heirs to a lineage that runs through much of the complex, fraught history of our nation.

When the Covid-19 crisis eases, we are eager to visit with members of the extended family when they next travel to Washington DC. They are likely to re-connect with cousins in the DC area, who may be able to shed more light on this long historical saga. We’ll be able to tour the locations that are so important in their family’s history, including:

• The early 19th century Nourse property on Georgetown’s Cedar Hill, now known as Dumbarton House, the headquarters of the Colonial Dames of America, which contains a fascinating museum displaying life during the period the Nourses occupied the property;
• The campus of the National Cathedral, on Mount St. Albans, where the Nourse family and persons they enslaved resided for many decades;
• The former Highlands (the modern Sidwell Friends campus), where William and Sarah Brooks lived in slavery and freedom;
• St. Alban’s Episcopal Church, D.C. (adjacent to the National Cathedral) and Holy Trinity Catholic Church in Georgetown, the two institutions where many Brooks family members worshipped during the 1800s;
• The playground of Lafayette Elementary School, the site of the home of Frank Brooks, born 1873, among the first in his family line born in freedom.

Always Connect

It still seems a little miraculous that through the archives, and thanks to online genealogical platforms like ancestry.com, it has been possible to connect with and converse with Brooks descendants, sharing stories of places that we are all connected to, through histories that cut across poles of race, oppression, and struggle in our shared national history. As we enter Black History Month, we cherish the conversations that emerge when we take seriously the imperative to listen and learn from meaningful places and the persons who knew these sites intimately.

I am still trying to think through what it means, that in a distant way, the places of my own coming of age are so closely bound up with the Brooks family story, from slavery times through Reconstruction, Jim Crow, and beyond. The principal point, I think, is that all of us are connected through the lands on which we have lived, worked, studied, and played to untold thousands of other lives, past and present.

In this country, that means that we are all tied, in ways that we cannot fully comprehend, to narratives that emerge out of our nation’s original sins—anchored in the genocidal displacement of Native Americans and the mass enslavement of persons of African descent. To revisit these landscapes, in the company of families like the descendants of William and Sarah Brooks, is to be reminded of this long history of injustice and collective violence. At the same time, to travel together through this land is to re-encounter, time and again, inspiring stories of resilience and courage. We go traveling together, in effect, tracing the arc of human history that famously “bends towards justice.”

In the final analysis, none of us are strangers to one another. In seeking out the stories our shared land has to tell us, we are reminded of that eternal truth. In re-visiting common ground, we re-encounter the Self in the Other, the “I” in the “Thou,” as we work, gradually but surely, towards building the beloved community for ourselves and our posterity.

Many thanks to Carleton Fletcher of Glover Park History; Fath Davis Ruffins; the History Committee of St. Alban’s Church, D.C.; Dumbarton House archives, Tudor Place archives; Sidwell Friends School archives; the Washington National Cathedral archives; Special Collections at Georgetown University Library, the Manuscript Division of the Library of Congress; the Washingtonia Division, Peabody Room, and Anacostia Branch of the District of Columbia Public Libraries; the District of Columbia Archives; and the National Archives and Records Administration. Special thanks to Bettye Howe Saunders and her extended family.

To read more about the history of the Brooks family and other persons who were enslaved on what are now the grounds of the Washington National Cathedral and Sidwell Friends, see my essay  essay here. My October 27, 2019 presentation at the Washington National Cathedral may be viewed here.

My research and partnership with the Brooks family descendants and Sidwell Friends School is profiled in Washingtonian Magazine.

An earlier version of this essay was posted in February 2020.

An earlier version of this essay was posted in February 2020.

A New Tabernacle: Remembering Lynching in Montgomery, Alabama

The most important American memorial in a generation isthe  National Memorial for Peace and Justice, in Montgomery, Alabama. Since it opened in April 2018, the memorial, designed by the MASS Design Group, in partnership with the Equal Justice Initiative on a six acre site in downtown Montgomery, has become one of the world’s most-discussed monuments. It memorializes approximately 4,400 people of color known to have been victims of lynching and racial terror in the United States, with an emphasis on the period between 1877 and 1950.

National Memorial to Peace and Justice

Within These Walls

The memorial park is walled off from the surrounding neighborhood, a storied community that played an important role in the Montgomery bus boycott of the mid-1950s. As visitors enter into the enclosed space, they move upwards along a gradual curving path towards a large central structure atop a hill, within which we can already glimpse hundreds of hanging metal columns. Along the path, on the wall, we encounter thoughtful written commentaries contextualizing racial lynching in American history. In a broad sense, lynching can be defined as a killing by two or more persons outside of the sanction of law. Racial terror lynching, the subject of the memorial, are acts of murderous violence against persons of color with the specific intent of terrorizing, intimidating, and disempowering entire communities of color. (Some African Americans were lynched specifically for registering to vote, or refusing to step off the curb for an approaching white person.) Lynching, as we normally use the term, was a mass strategy of racial oppression in the decades following the end of Reconstruction, part and parcel of the emergence of institutions of white domination sometimes termed “slavery by another name.”

Walking along these walls up the path towards the lurking structure at its summit, it is hard not to be reminded of Golgotha or Calvary, the hill outside of Jerusalem’s ancient walls where Jesus is believed to have been crucified. The equation of lynching victims with the crucified Christ has a long history in African American thought, culminating in Gwendolyn Brooks’ poetic couplet, “The lariat lynch-wish I deplored/The loveliest lynchee was our Lord.” Halfway up we encounter the first of three figurative sculpture groupings in the park. Nkyinkim (“Twisting”) by Ghanian sculptor Kwame Akoto-Bamfo evokes the transatlantic slave trade through a circle of six African men and women chained together in contorted positions of torment. One crouching female figure is clearly pregnant, perhaps about to give birth. The imagery of pregnancy, picked up again much later in the memorial journey, evokes the many generations bound together by the shared legacies of enslavement, de jure and de facto.

Inside Four Chambers

At the hill’s apex we enter into a vast square-shaped structure, designed by MASS Design group of Boston. 805 metal columns, roughly the size of a coffin, hang vertically from the roof. On each is inscribed the name of a specific county within which lynchings are known to have been perpetrated. Also inscribed on a face of the column are the names of each person lynched within the county, arranged in chronological sequence. A light is positioned under each column, so that at night, the names are illuminated, a series of hundreds of memorial candles lit in memory against the encroaching darkness. At the center of the overall assemblage is an open empty space, the “Memorial Square,” evocative of the many town squares, often in front of county courthouses, where lynchings were performed as collective, violent affirmations of white supremacy at the visible seat of judicial and political authority.

When we first enter the structure, in the first of four chambers, the vertical columns essentially touch the floor, and we have the sense almost of confronting a person on the scaffold, a moment before their death. Later, the columns in effect seem to rise about us. Each column is hung from the same height, but since the flooring underneath tilts gradually downwards, visitors move from directly facing the names of the victims to walking underneath the hanging coffin-like structures. The name of each county is written at the column’s base, so one gradually moves from encounters with the horror of individual loss to a sense of the collective totality of these crimes against humanity. The vertical columns not only evoke hanging bodies but are stark reminders that those who perpetrated lynching often left their murdered victims hanging for days or weeks, forbidding their loved ones from cutting them down and giving them proper burials. As we descend through the structure, we come, in effect, to feel the burdensome weight of history, hanging over our heads.

Why the design choice not to list the victims in a vast common sequence, as in Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial, but rather in discrete groupings, county by county? The choice strikes me as appropriate, given that lynching was so often a county-level phenomena, through which local white elites, emerging out of the pre-Civil War “plantocracy,” and low-income white farmers and workers were united through common, sacrificial violence directed against African Americans. The county groupings also emphasize that the continuing mission of acknowledging and memorializing lynching, and facing up to the hard work of racial justice at the present moment, needs to be pursued county by county across the nation. Hancock County, Mississippi. Chatham County, North Carolina. Spencer County, Kentucky… Time and time again during our visit, we heard visitors remarking, with a degree of shock, as they encountered a county they knew or had friends in. The geographical specificity of the markers makes it harder to turn our eyes from acknowledging the horror: this thing took place here, and here, and here…

Taken as a whole, the central structure reminded me of a modern Tabernacle, evocative of the mobile sacred enclosure built by the Israelites after their escape from Egypt, centered on the Holy of Holies, within which the spirit of the Lord was sensed to be immanent. Now, instead of four columns holding up the inmost shelter, we are surrounded by hundreds of columns dedicated to the lost. In the center is the roofless square, within which we face upwards towards the ultimate altar, the sky itself. Within the structure’s final chambers, once the metal columns begin to hang above us, they are oddly beautiful, redolent perhaps of the pipes of an enormous church organ, or the soaring columns of a great cathedral.

As we descend through the third great hallway chamber under the lurking columns, now far above us, we encounter on the walls vertical signs, repeating the motif of the upright columns, telling us specific stories of actual mass murders, each one startling and unbearably painful. Along the wall of the fourth and final hallway chamber we come to an eternal waterfall, echoing the flowing waters of Maya Lin’s Civil Rights Memorial down the street, dedicated to Dr. King’s beloved passage in the Book of Amos (5:24); “But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” Across this waterfall are inscribed the words, “Thousands of African Americans are unknown victims of racial terror lynching, whose deaths cannot be documented, whose names will never be known. They are all honored here.”

From water, we move to earth. A glassed-in container holds soil from over two dozen sites where lynchings were committed. A sign invites members of the public to bring more such offerings back to the memorial. (Improbably, on the day we visited, a little green plant had taken root in the soil.)

A Sermon of Renewal

Finally we exit the structure and its long, hanging shadows and come back into the sunlight. We are greeted at this threshold by one of the most stunning passages in American letters, Baby Suggs sermon from Toni Morrison’s Beloved. In a hidden grove of trees, Baby Suggs enjoins the enslaved to embrace their own bodily essence,

“And O my people out yonder. They do not love your neck unoosed and straight. So love your neck. Put a hand on it, grace it, stroke it and hold it up. All your inside parts that they’d just as soon slop for hogs, you got to love them. The dark, dark liver-you got to love it. And the beating and living heart, love that too. More than eyes or feet, more than lungs that have yet to draw free air. More than your life giving womb and your life giving private parts. Hear me now, love your heart, for this is the prize.”
R
e-reading Morrison’s famous passage, it occurred to me that the entire tabernacle structure, divided as it is into four quadrants, could be conceived of as a vast four-chambered human heart, the beating essence of a vital American history so long denied. Perhaps we, as visitors, are akin to the nation’s lifeblood; subjected to almost unbearable pressure under the structure’s columns, we are then expelled, once more into the body politic, newly resolved to do the great work ahead.

Having pondered Baby Suggs’ sermon, we now enter an enormous field, where we encounter identical copies of the 805 coffin-size columns, made of oxidizing corten steel, each inscribed with names of the counties and the names of the lynching victims. Before we encountered them hanging vertically, but now they are neatly laid out horizontally, side by side. In a sense, we might think of them as moving from the initial state of torture and execution, swinging in the southern breeze, towards being honored in a vast, silent cemetery, as they are prepared for final internment.
The Equal Justice Initiative leaders have explained that they intend this section of the memorial to be temporary. Their hope is that, in time, each county in which lynchings took place will officially collect their memorial column, and install it in a place of honor, perhaps at an actual lynching site or within the county courthouse square. Laid out neatly in row after row after row, the columns struck me as little airplanes waiting patiently to take wing, hoping, after their long exile, to at long last return home.

At the end of the field of coffins, we encounter a memorial grove dedicated to the great anti-lynching crusader Ida B. Welles, and the memorial’s second sculptural group, this one by Dana King, dedicated to the women of the Montgomery bus boycott, which launched the modern Civil Rights movement. Here, three black women of varied ages walk forward with determination, emphatically not riding segregated bus lines to and from work. In what I take to be an echo of the crouching figure in Kwame Akofo-Bamfo’s assemblage, one of the women is visibly pregnant. Another life about to be born. Defying generations of unspeakable suffering and oppression, the struggle continues. Will the circle be unbroken? Appropriately, these marching figures overlook the very neighborhood where early organizing for the boycott took place. The memorial is national, even global, in its scope as an international site of conscience. But it is also deeply rooted, in a here-and-now place, in a specific community with a deep history and continuing local struggles.

As we descend the hill on a zig-zagged path, we come to the third sculptural grouping, Hank Willis Thomas’ Rise Up. Emerging out of a wall, facing the central structure of the hanging columns, are black heads and raised arms. The initial version of the piece was inspired by Ernest Cole’s famous apartheid-era photograph of black South African miners undergoing a humiliating medical examination. Here it is re-tasked to a mission closer to home. Signage explicitly references the daily oppression experienced by African Americans through unjust police shootings and the continuing prison-industrial system, a historical legacy, it is suggested, of slavery itself. (This point is reiterated in the associated Legacy Museum, which argues that the penal agriculture system re-instituted “slavery by another name” throughout the American South.)

Comparing Memorials

Inevitably, comparisons are drawn to Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial, the nation’s leading memorial, which similarly seeks to honor the dead through unadorned inscriptions of their names. Among other things, both memorials continue to grapple rather uneasily, with the relationship between a central abstract installation and rather peripheral figurative sculptures, which border, in some instances, on kitsch. At the outskirts if the Vietnam memorial stands Fredrick Hart’s Three Soldiers sculpture, added on amidst much controversy. This figurative work, entirely subsumed within the overwhelming penumbra of The Wall, now seems a minor footnote to what is arguably the nation’s preeminent sacred space. Similarly the three sculptural groupings encircling the hilltop tabernacle of the lynching memorial are forever in the shadow of the enormous emotive power of the hanging columns, which sear themselves into the memory of each visitor.

I am particularly interested in how both memorials make use of the experience of ascent and descent, through which the traveling body of the visitor becomes necessary to the overall encounter with death, loss, memory, and perhaps rebirth. In the Vietnam memorial, we gradually descend into the earth, into the solemn, dark domain of the Dead, and then slowly emerge upwards once more. Having come out, in effect, up from within the ground, we see once more the gleaming alabaster buildings and monuments of Washington D.C, jutting towards the sky in Olympian splendor. Everything now looks the same, and everything looks different.

At the Montgomery memorial, we first ascend up a hill, towards the symbolic place of martyrdom, and then we descend slowly within the tabernacle, under the sheltering weight of the hanging columns and all those names, finally coming to the soothing flow of the wall of water. Once again, we enter into the earth, into the other worldly home of the Dead, including those, we are reminded, whose names we will never know. We are taken into a cavern, a place of simultaneous endings and beginnings, a kind of cosmic womb within which we must reflect upon our nation’s greatest moral failings and where we must start to ponder how we will undertake, individually and collectively, the necessary work of social repair.

Final Offerings

As we all know, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial quickly became a living spontaneous memorial, to which untold thousands, without any bidding, have brought countless offerings—flowers, medals of valor, letters to the fallen, and works of art—lain carefully under the inscribed names of the Dead. The lynching memorial does invite the public to bring offerings of soil to that small box, but I haven’t yet seen any spontaneous offerings placed under the hanging columns and the names themselves. Somehow, such acts would, I suspect, seem entirely out of place. The real work of remembrance, as difficult as it is, will take place after the visit, returning back to our own counties, and convincing local leaders and fellow citizens to assume the mantle of historical responsibility, to acknowledge the sins of the past and transport the waiting column coffin back home from Montgomery to its final, proper resting place.

The hilltop enclosure is a kind of sacred grove, evoking the mythic forest in which Baby Suggs lovingly ministered to the oppressed. Each upright column hangs forever like a tree torn brutally from its roots. Our most important offerings to this tabernacle can’t really take place within it, but only back in our home places, as we replant our own particular tree of memory in native soil, wait for it take root, and discover together what the future might bring.

A earlier version of this essay was posted in August 2018

Inspiration from the Waters: Apay’uq’s Art and the Bristol Bay Struggle

Apay’uq.. Our Agreement

The complex ecosystem of Bristol Bay in southeast Alaska, and the struggle to preserve this world’s largest salmon fishery from the planned Pebble Mine project, have  “spawned” a great range of artistic responses, including the striking work of the artist  Apay’uq.

For Yup’ik peoples, like other Native peoples of the region, the life cycles of salmon and of human beings are intimately intertwined in material and spiritual registers.  Apay’uq explores these interdependent cycles of creation in her painting Our Agreement (2011). a work inspired by the artist’s own pregnancy.  The swell of the abdomen of the pregnant woman, in which a developing fetus is glimpsed, describes the shape of a leaping salmon, which seems to speak to the woman, her breasts perhaps beginning to fill with milk in anticipation of the child’s arrival. The life-giving arterial blood in the woman’s hand, which is echoed in the delicate placental blood vessels feeding the child, are merged into the tail of the salmon, a reminder that Salmon provides the vital nutrients for human development. 

In the background the artist has written repeatedly the words of Salmon, that came to her as she viewed her painting: “I will nourish your future generations, as long as you protect mine.”  The swirling blue of ocean and river water, which nurtures salmon, splash up to become uterine fluid, giving life to the developing child.. Salmon willingly gives of its flesh to nurture its human counterparts, include the child yet to be born, with the age-old understanding that human beings will honor Salmon in ritual ceremonials and through sustainable harvesting practices.  This covenant is now extended to the vital struggle of preserving the Bristol Bay ecosystem from Pebble Mine.

In a similar vein, in her “Original-Identity, They return to remind future generations who we are.”  Apay’uq depicts a swimming salmon couple; the female in the foreground has within its belly a sleeping smiling human child, curled into a fetal position. The background text repeats the title phrase, They return to remind our future generations who we are.” This prophetic message is reinforced by the repeated ancient petroglyph symbols of the spiral, reminder of the continuous mystery of creation, and handprints, evoking the enduring presence of previous human generations nurtured by Salmon, and of all those yet to come. The eggs within the female salmon are metaphorically linked to the growth of future human children.  Each year, salmon return to spawn in the river’s headwaters, creating the wealth that will  nurture untold human generations yet to come.

Apay’uq. A Place that’s always been

The essential embedding of salmon in the regional landscape, in turn, is celebrated in  Apay’uq’s “A Place that’s always been,” a vision of the glorious expanse of Bristol Bay in summer.  The piece was created, the artist notes, to support a local Native Corporation’s commercial on this theme, “A Place that’s always been.”  In the foreground we see the flowering sred almonberries or cloudberries (Rubus spectabilis) traditionally mixed with salmon roe in Native cuisine. Above the bay and the distant mountains we view clouds in the shape of migrating salmon returning to the headwaters where they hatched years earlier, to spawn a new generation of migrating beings. The blue of the sky is reflected in the bay’s waters, and the clouds above, in turn, reflect the migrating fish under the water’s surface.  The artist writes of the salmon in this painting,  “For me they represent the spirit of Bristol bay. Our people are very spiritual and all beings are to be respected. So I romanticize the idea of the salmon being part of everything.”

The red berries in the foreground make the entire composition sing in an ancient chant rejoicing in the coming of new life. The artist here makes no direct allusion to the threat of Pebble Mine, but all the visible elements here, including the berry clusters , the life-giving waters, and the celestial salmon run,  remind us what is at stake if Pebble Mine permitting proceeds and vast mineral extraction threatens this exquisite, life-giving ecosystem.

Apay’uq., Understanding Wealth

Proponents of Pebble Mine have claimed it will provide jobs and wealth to the region’s people, more than making up for projected decline in commercial fishing revenues in the fishery is damaged. The artist speaks to this argument in “Understanding Wealth’,  depicting a Yup’ik person displaying his or her.wallet.  The billfold’s top compartment  opens up into  vision of water filled with migrating salmon, the ultimate foundation of meaningful life.  Dollar signs, the “S” shaped as pink salmon, remind us what real wealth is. The smiling person generously holds the open wallet towards the viewer, presenting these swimming, living contents to all of us; the true wealth of Bristol Bay, including the world’s greatest salmon fishery, are the common heritage of all people, who all share a common responsibility to honor nature’s beings.

In other work,  Apay’uq has taken on the Pebble Mine more overtly. Her witty logo for the struggle places a metal screw across the words Pebble Mine in a diagonal slant. Screw Pebble Mine, indeed.

Apay’uq., Screw Pebble Mind