America’s Selective Memory (…or should I say “Memorials?”)

My apologies for the long delay between posts!  I just had a few crazy weeks full of graduating, moving, starting a new internship at the Art Institute of Chicago, weddings and many more life-altering events.  Any week after the few that I have just had will be just plain boring.  But now, I have a second to breathe and blog.

As part of my early research at the Art Institute for a thematic tour that I created called “African-American Identity in Art,” I came across a piece that I studied last fall in my 18th and 19th Century American Art class called “The Freedman.”  Between its history and its meaning, I hope you’ll grow to appreciate it in the next few paragraphs just as much as I do.  (As part of my internship at the Art Institute, we will have an intern blog, and I’ll put a link for it up on this blog once it’s up and running, just in case you’re interested in the misadventures of Museum Education nerds!)

While the central function of memorials and commemorative artworks has traditionally been understood as paying homage to an important event or individual, the general public usually discounts the fact that, more importantly, these artworks allow the artist and patron to propagate ideas about the past.  More specifically in reference to Civil War monuments, artists used their artwork to instill in their viewers ideas about race relations, power structure, and politics after the war ended, while contributing to America’s selective memory about all of these issues.

"The Emancipation Group" by Thomas Ball, 1876, Washington D.C.

Thomas Ball’s 1876 memorial statue Emancipation Group (Freedman’s Memorial Monument to Abraham Lincoln) is case in point.  It exemplifies the more normal, stereotypical Civil War monuments erected during this time that showed Lincoln freeing a subservient slave.  The statues shows Abraham Lincoln standing upright, looking down at a freed slave who crouches below him accepting the gift of freedom as bestowed upon him by Lincoln.  This statue, like many others produced by white artists for white monument committees, suggests the success of the emancipation, congratulates white society, and includes an important, white patriarchal figure.  These issues fit squarely in with the “self-congratulatory view of emancipation as a great act inspired by white leadership.” (Savage) Aside from the clear issue of the freed slave’s passivity, “while the point of the statue’s emancipation narrative is that Lincoln’s act will enable the black man to rise, he never does because the monument, in its permanence, fixes him literally and figuratively in his place.” (Savage) Many African-Americans likened the image to that of a shoe shine, reiterating the degradation given to the freed slave figure within the composition.  Figures such as Ball’s only help contribute to America’s selective memory of the Civil War and the emancipation.

“Historically, we know that this imagery is nonsense: we know that slaves played a  decisive role in their own liberation during the Civil War, and that Lincoln was probably more dependent on them for helping to erode the Confederacy’s strength than they were on him.” (Savage, 28)

John Quincy Adams Ward's "The Freedman," 1863, Bronze, 19.5 x 15.75 x 9.5 in.

The Freedman, by John Quincy Adams Ward, a white American artist, depicts a man who has been recently freed from slavery.  Without knowing anything about the history behind this piece, and simply by looking at its physical and formal qualities in comparison to those of The Emancipation Group, you can see a few major differences.  Ward’s classicized bronze black male figure sits on a tree stump, muscular and alert.  While he supports himself with his right arm, his left leans against his left leg with an unfastened handcuff dangling from his wrist.  He is not broken or begging; he is not in despair; he is poised and alert.  Further, he is alone.  No trace of white power or politics exists in the piece, except  perhaps in the dangling shackles.  His liberation rests entirely on his shoulders.

At the time of its creation, The Freedman was incredibly progressive, depicting an African-American with no reference to the accomplishments of white men or white men at all for that matter.  He appears aware of what has happened, but ready for what is to come.  However, the tragedy of this sculpture lies in its inability to become the great emblem of American liberty due to Ward’s iconography.  The moment that Ward chose to depict both gave the piece its power and took it away as well.  It shows the freed man after the before (not in tattered rags, beaten and scarred), and before the after (not in a Union Army uniform).  Before 1865, the black man appeared too moral, free, and strong for America’s taste, especially in the South, while after 1865 when slavery had been abolished by the war, the freed man did not appear free enough.  While monuments like Ball’s Emancipation Group stand proud and public, Ward’s The Freedman sits in gallery 171 of the Art Institute of Chicago, surrounded by less grandiose, but by no means less important artwork.

What lesson should we take away from this?  Be discerning.  It is crucial to look at history beyond what is presented to us in textbooks, seeing as history is usually told from the perspective of the winner and tends to neglect marginalized groups (especially when said groups were marginalized by the said winner).  About a month ago, I was watching the History Channel’s new(ish) mini-series “America: The Story of Us,” and the narrator made some mention about the “great freedom of religion” that Colonists experienced when they came to America……well…yeah.  How nice for them.  But what about the Native Americans who were forced to give up their religions in lieu of Christianity??  They don’t call it “colonization” for nothing.


Kirk Savage, “Molding Emancipation: John Quincy Adams Ward’s ‘The Freedman’ and the Meaning of the Civil War.’ Art Institute of Chicago Museum Studies, Vol. 27, No. 1, Terrain of Freedom: American Art and the Civil War (2001)

AIC’s Art Access: The Freedman


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