When I was a child in New York City, my parents were very keen on my brother and me visiting pretty much every museum we could on a regular basis. Being artists themselves, I was four or five years old when I first visited the The American Museum of Natural History. I’m embarrassed to admit that I’m sure the very fist thing I noticed about the equestrian sculpture of Theodore Roosevelt facing Central Park West were the ponderous testicles of the horse. It is still the first thing I think of when I think of that sculpture and when I read news of its imminent removal from its place of prominence, that’s exactly what first came to mind.
However, after that, even as a small child, I remember thinking “why is the African guy naked?” This piece of sculpture was not just fascination for me, but it was troubling particularly on school trips in second and third grade to the museum. Encountering this image of African manhood in public and having to defend my own African heritage because of it was a formative moment for me. Trump and those who are disturbed by the removal of this sculpture are clueless about what an image like this can do. This piece and other statues that misrepresent people of color or the way they have been oppressed have an enormous impact on the young people of color who see them. As the song says, “children will listen.” Children will also look and see and most important of all, children will feel and remember.
Knowing that this sculpture will come down is a bit of a personal triumph. I have never been able to justify in my mind why it was there in the first place. I’ve always felt some embarrassed annoyance when I saw it (like the Lincoln “Emancipator” sculpture.) Scholars have defended the sculpture as being representative of Roosevelt’s sense of equality of the races, despite his prominence during the height of the Eugenics craze. Explaining its narrative, Dr. Harriet F. Senie of the Museum focuses on the three figures as a “heroic group” based on a 1928 description by the architect of the memorial, John Russel Pope for the Roosevelt Memorial Commission that was responsible for the piece. His description says,
“In the center of the terrace…will arise a polished granite pedestal bearing an equestrian statue of Roosevelt with two accompanying figures on foot, one representing the American Indian and the other the primitive African. This heroic group…will symbolize the fearless leadership, the explorer, benefactor and educator….”
Dr. Senie claims that,
“Pope refers to the figures as a ‘heroic group.’ That’s important. In some criticisms, the standing figures were taken to be lesser than Roosevelt. That was never the intention. They are allegorical figures representing Africa and America, emphasized by the animals on the parapet reliefs.”
Bollocks. It may not have been the intention, but it was the result. In my eyes, the group is not heroic and would not have been seen a as such without Roosevelt atop his well endowed mount. The sculpture completed in 1939 by James Earle Fraser, is 100% glorification of Roosevelt literally astride his manhood, head and shoulders above the manhood of the primitive African and the Native person. It is a surprising composition for an artist who also created the famous “End of the Trail” sculpture depicting the tragic end of forced migration of Native people. In the Roosevelt sculpture, the African and the Native person are nameless anonymous figures that only serve to enhance Roosevelt’s story. They have none of their own. What is most important in Pope’s description are the words ‘benefactor and educator.’ This message may not be clear to a celebrated white scholar like Dr. Senie, but it sure as hell was clear to a 7 year old black kid: white presidents matter…black and brown people are in the background, following…and they don’t matter.
We don’t identify with their triumph because we have learned that too often, the triumph being depicted was at our ancestors’ expense or exclusion or death.
Black and brown children across this country are fed a constant diet of white superiority and prominence in our school curricula, in our entertainment, in our media and in the statuary that we are surrounded by. Seeing images of white men on fabulous horses or holding really long rifles and swords with glory and fury in their eyes, gives us (people of color) no sense of pride. We don’t identify with their triumph because we have learned that too often, the triumph being depicted was at our ancestors’ expense or exclusion or death. If some white people today are worried about all of the monuments coming down and all of the schools and buildings and streets being re-named, they should be. These streets and statutes and buildings were named to honor actions of oppression, theft and genocide for the purpose of enabling a white majority to grow and flourish over several centuries at the cost of the well being of black and brown people. These monuments are celebrations of the success of white supremacy. Of course we want them torn down.
The one statue that could remain is the one depicting the person who succeeded in making sure that the Constitution didn’t protect slavery; along with the one of the person that guaranteed votes for all people in the US from the start regardless of race or gender; as well, the statue of the person who prevented the violent removal of Native people from their land…
Oh right, there are no such sculptures, because those people didn’t exist.
Thank God, my parents exposed me to a healthy diet of diverse black art that allowed me to see the Theodore Roosevelt sculpture clearly and with the good sense to interrogate it and not be damaged by it. The most important art they exposed me to was the work of Inge Hardison. On March 23, 2016, African American sculptor and actress Inge Hardison died at 102. Ms Hardison was a personal friend of my parents and lived in our neighborhood in New York when I was a child. My father still has an original of her famous Harriet Tubman sculpture that I remember playing with like a toy. When she created a bust of Frederick Douglass for Princeton University while I was there as an undergrad, I was enormously proud. Knowing her work so well, recognizing the investment in her by the University and the seeing the passionate representation of Douglass felt like a personal affirmation. As a result of Inge Hardison and others, I grew up knowing that there were the images of blackness as I knew blackness to be: Noble. Fierce. Clear. Sensitive. Brave. They didn’t need a white man or giant horse balls to be heroic.
If only Inge Hardison was still alive to create a proper memorial to “natural history” in place of the Roosevelt statue. I’m sure it would be heroic.
 “Theodore Roosevelt Statue: Artist, Planners Original Intent: AMNH,” American Museum of Natural History (American Museum of Natural History), accessed June 22, 2020, https://www.amnh.org/exhibitions/addressing-the-theodore-roosevelt-statue/making-the-statue.
More information about the Theodore Roosevelt Sculpture