They call it Black History Month, though public attention has a way of petering out in the early days of February, ground down by the pro-forma parade of familiar icons—Martin Luther King and Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth and Rosa Parks. Though I suppose they must be fresh revelations to a certain segment of the population, unfortunately, and we shouldn't dismiss anything that slides them under the public nose.
But history—black or white or whatever hue it's cast in—shouldn't be rote. Not something dull you memorize. It should live, and be real, and talk to us, and relate to our present moment somehow. Otherwise what good is it?
Look at this relic of the Civil War, the Memorial to Robert Gould Shaw and the Massachusetts Fifty-Fourth Regiment, by August Saint-Gaudens. The original version is a bronze on display on Beacon Street next to Boston Commons—this is the later, plaster version, in the collection of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., where I noticed it last June.
|The Latin inscription translates as "He left all to save the Republic."
Their first battle was a suicidal storming of Fort Wagner, the well-defended battery that guarded Charleston, South Carolina. On July 18, 1863, Shaw led the charge and was killed almost immediately. Half the men in his 600 soldier regiment were killed or captured.
"Not a man flinched, though it was a trying time," Lewis Douglass wrote to his wife.
Saint-Gaudens, America's greatest sculptor, spent a dozen years on the sculpture, hiring African-American models to pose for the 16 figures of the black soldiers. On the Boston Memorial, an inscription on the monument begins, "The white officers taking life and honor in their hands cast in their lot with men of a despised race unproven in war." As a reminder of just how despised, when the monument was unveiled in 1897, it contained the names of the white officers who fell, but not of the black officers, though their heroism was noted, and the fact that for the first 18 months they were unpaid.
Therein lies a tale. When the War Department approved the idea of black soldiers, it paid them $10 a month, versus $13 for white, and black soldiers refused the unfair slight, until Congress decreed that all soldiers, of whatever race, would receive equal pay. (The pay stand-off was a theme in Edward Zwick's melodramatic film about the 54th, "Glory.") Some 200,000 African-Americans served in the Union Army in the Civil War.
Three hundred black men killed or captured. One of those wounded, William Carney, became the first African-American to win the Congressional Medal of Honor. Awarded in 1900 for his role in the battle—Carney snatched the flag from its hurt bearer and, though wounded himself, carried it aloft throughout the fiasco. "Boys," he said afterward, "the old flag never touched the ground."
But the monument is to Shaw, whose body was pierced, pierced with bullets, was stripped and thrown into a mass grave with the corpses of his troops. Still, the inclusion of the marching men he led in his memorial was nearly incidental. Saint-Gaudens almost depicted him charging on horseback, alone, but was deterred because the charge was on foot, so the scene depicted is him leading his regiment out of Boston, on the way to fight, past the very spot where the bronze memorial stands.
The Irish-born sculptor did a masterful job--some call it the greatest American sculpture of the 19th century, and when the version above was displayed at the Paris Exposition of 1900, Auguste Rodin is said to have taken his hat off and stood before it, head bowed in silent veneration. It represents a heroic view of memorializing war that Maya Lin ended with her Vietnam Memorial, a black gash of stone that Robert Lowell predicted in "For the Union Dead," his marvelous poem about the Civil War, memory and the Shaw monument, in these lines:
Shaw's father wanted no monumentYou can read the entire poem here, and should.
except the ditch,
where his son's body was thrown
and lost with his "niggers."
But his work also reminds us that American society holds the personhood of African-Americans cheaper than whites. It did so in 1863, and in 1897. It also did so in 1989 when Edward Zwick made "Glory" ("I didn't understand why it had to be told so often from the point of view of the 54th's white commanding officer," Roger Ebert writes in his review of the film. "Why did we see the black troops through his eyes — instead of seeing him through theirs? To put it another way, why does the top billing in this movie go to a white actor?")
Good question. And why does that primacy of white lives over black persist today? Knowing what we know now, why do we still act the way we do? Another good question.