Artist Steve Locke proposed a piece of artwork during his time in the City of Boston’s artist-in-residence program that would remind visitors of Faneuil Hall of what brought it into existence: slavery.
Had the project come to fruition, it would have been officially named, “Auction Block Memorial at Faneuil Hall: A Site Dedicated to Those Enslaved Africans and African-Americans Whose Labor and Trafficking Through the Triangular Trade Financed the Building of Faneuil Hall.”
His proposal was met with a lot of support. Boston committed $150,000 from its art funds and he was able to raise $48,000 on the fundraising platform Kickstarter. That isn’t to say that the artist didn’t face opposition; some feared that this project would impede on efforts to rename the site. However, there was a particularly powerful source of opposition that is surprising, at first glance — the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
On behalf of the chapter, president Tanisha Sullivan voiced concerns that Boston’s Black community did not have the opportunity to weigh in on Locke’s work and how that reality was counter to the NAACP’s work. Locke ended up withdrawing his proposal, demonstrating, perhaps not agreement with the chapter, but powerful compassion for the cause he is ultimately advocating for with this piece of art.
Without a doubt, both Locke and the NAACP put forth compelling arguments for their respective cases. However, while there should not be conflict between the city and the NAACP, Locke may have overreacted to the existence of that possibility. It is unlikely that anything particularly bellicose would have broken out between the two parties. In this situation, a compromise that partially accomplished all parties’ goals was very possible.
Furthermore, Locke should not have felt obligated to give into outside parties. While his work would literally make visible a crucial history, by exercising its influence in the Black community, the NAACP put onto him a massive burden of representation. Since they objected to it being erected, the organization is ultimately responsible for providing a platform for conversation.
A single piece of artwork cannot encapsulate all of the wrongs that have been committed on Black bodies in this country. That being said, even without its volunteered input, Boston’s Black community might have appreciated Locke’s artwork regardless.
What is being said here should not be confused with demonizing this organization. Its past and current work in civil rights have indisputably contributed to the improved, and still changing, race-relations in this country. Yet, it is difficult to wholeheartedly support how they intervened in these circumstances. Their argument, in the dialogue around representation, is sensible.
If the artwork is about an experience that has dramatically altered the lives of Black people, not being proactive about collecting and incorporating their opinions is a mistake. However, a physical reminder of the undue suffering and humiliation that their ancestors faced is an essential step for the reconciliation of truths in our still segregated society.
Most importantly, the actualization of Locke’s proposal would’ve necessarily illuminated the problematic history around Faneuil Hall and the family behind it. Seeing a microcosm of an institution that objectified other humans and feeling empathy for them — that will be a stronger and much more visceral push than a name change. Although, the artwork could have helped make a more substantiated case for the name change as well.
Neither party is decisively right or wrong in this situation. We should not spend our time questioning how representative a monument is of our collective histories. Instead of fixating on the details of the process, it is more important to celebrate Locke’s work and the cause he is supporting.