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California State University, Dominguez Hills
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Created: October 24, 2003
Latest Update: August 16, 2005

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The Other Answers: I Am Offended by Your History
Two versions of the Statue of Liberty are speaking here to one another. The one on the right, reflects my imaginary of the more colorful decor that might have graced a Black Liberty. The one on the left is the actual statue on September 11. Today I received an e-mail identified as coming from Jenni Johnson. She was angry. I had offended her: And I'm sorry, for I don't even know her..
"Why can't you people stop with your twisted half-truths regarding history? Bartholdi first created a statue of an Egyptian peasant woman for Egypt. Liberty came later and was modeled after his mother (look at her picture in the link).

All you can do is preach half-lies and inflame your youth - nothing gets accomplished that way. MLK Jr. would have admonished you and your ilk. Satan also twists half-truths - so did Hitler and Stalin. And she provided the link: History of the Statue of Liberty The Americn Parks Network.

Ms. Jackson didn't reference the file she was reading, and for some reason statlib01.htm is blank. It's an old file, but I remember it well. And there was a painting, too, of the Statue of Liberty as a Black Woman. Ms. Johnson says that the statue was modeled after Bartholdi's mother, but in fact the website she links tells us that "The sculptor's true inspiration for his masterpiece remains a mystery." One source suggests that the inspiration might have been "based on Bartholdi's early drawings for a never-commissioned statue in Egypt." Now Egypt is in North Africa. Maybe, just maybe, the Egyptian model is of African descent.

Be that as it may, the important thing is that the file to which Ms. Johnson refers was written in response to documents discovered in national librairies in France and the U.S. Since I can't find the file just now, I can't tell you precisely where the references came from: A professor at some university back east received information from a friend about the possibility that there had originally been a black woman in the original conception. The professor followed through searching for documents and presented them either on Progressive Sociologists' Network or on Critical Sociology. We provided links for our students to consider the possibility and I made a painting of a colorful Statue of Liberty as I tried to imagine what she might have been like as a black woman. Bartholdi's original Egyptian drawings, as I recall, were based on his admiration of what the colonized women of Africa had contributed to the social infrastructure that developed. That would have made sense for the U.S. also.

What matters is not what his actual inspiration was. The Statue of Liberty is an icon, a piece of art conceived to honor woman. Be she white or black, or any other color, the concept of honoring woman is what counts. So, we're sorry that you were offended Ms. Jackson, for you, too, are a woman, and part of that caring and gentleness of nurture that women represent. We understand that the thought of a black statue of liberty defies the knowledge of history that you have received. But that is the problem with received history; it is generally written by from the perspective of those who rule. The professor who alerted us to these unknowns in our past stimulated many of us to consider how strange it was to think of a black statue of liberty. Most of us had never heard of even the remote probability.

I was grateful for the link to the National Parks Site because it offered me the perfect view of September 11. The statue of liberty on the right is once again my imagination of what the statue might have been. But now, after September 11, I see the whole painting differently. Instead of just the wonder of imagining our icon as a black woman, the black imaginary in my painting answering the traditional history of the U.S., in which we insist that we are a democracy of justice and enlightenment, and that we are not like all the other colonials. The black statue answers, insistently, that our history is received history that has blatantly ignored much of what we have done in the name of this great democracy. I cannot imagine a more dramatic illustration of answerability than this great statue reminding the Other great statue, in the midst of her hour of woe, that liberty is without borders, without domination, without exploitation, and that these are the issues to which we have come.

You would ask me not to share these paintings, these thoughts, with our youth. But only when we do share them will we defeat the Hitlers and the Stalins and the Saddam Husseins of this world. I hear the pain the challenge of this answer causes you. And that pain is real, for we have long believed that the U.S. could do no wrong. Now is the time for all of us to acknowedge that we have wronged others, that the U.S. has wronged others. That does not justify their attacking our homeland. Nor does it justify our attacking theirs, especially in the name of oil. But neither are we justified in refusing to hear the pain that such revelation causes you.

We are sorry to have hurt you. We mean you no harm. But we ask that you share with us the pain that we have felt for so long that we in the U.S. could not imagine the Statue of Liberty as a black woman. Share it by letting us know that you were not aware of our pain. And we will tell you of the hurt we have felt, and listen in good faith to the hurt that you have felt, for we do not mean to hurt one another.

I tried to paint an answer that would let you see both pains, the Statue of Liberty with the WTO burning behind her; the imaginary statue of a woman who could never aspire to those heights in a country that would not acknowledge her as a woman. We are both hurting. It is hard to go back into history and understand what really happened. So few documents are preserved, and then by chance, as often as by intent. Liberty and democracy and freedom are about our respecting each other, and doing our best to see the pain of the Other, the world as it appears to someone not like me. But the future can be written by both of us, by all of us, for here are only two of many. The future can be written in peace and justice when we take the time to respect one another.

Thank you for telling me of the pain we caused you in our old file on the Statue of Liberty. I hope that you will understand the importance of our imagining history as it might have been, had not colonization and domination been the agenda of empires. The Statue of Liberty can only grow in beauty and meaning as we welcome once again all peoples, all colors, all classes to share in a new agenda of peace, justice and healing.

Thank you for writing. Please write again if you wish to.

Jeanne Curran
Professor of Sociology

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For more information on the Statue of Liberty and Progressive Sociologists' discussion of received history on this issue:

  • Your rich, your lazy, your coddled classes... Progressive Sociologist's Network. T.R. Young. Trouble accessing this site on August 16, 2005.


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