By Thomas K. Pendergast
Much has changed this past year in the Music Concourse of Golden Gate Park, from statues coming down and museums closing then reopening, to a brightly lit observation wheel rising 150 feet into the sky.
Another significant change in this time of pandemic and racial conflict will be coming this month with an art installation by sculptor and former KPIX News reporter Dana King.
Called “Monumental Reckoning,” it will feature 350 black statues surrounding the plinth where a statue of Francis Scott Key stood until it was torn down by vandals on June 19, 2020.
This will be a temporary installation scheduled for removal in June 2023.
Meanwhile, at the other end of the concourse on the Spreckels Temple of Music (also known as the band shell), three words – “Lift Every Voice” – might also be going up in lights there as a temporary installation. The project’s fate hinges on the San Francisco Historical Preservation Commission giving its final approval this month.
This piece comes from Ben Davis and a non-profit organization called Illuminate the Arts. The words are taken from the title of the James Weldon Johnson song, “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” which is considered by many to be the Black national anthem. It was first sung in 1900, the same year that the Spreckels Temple of Music opened.
Illuminate the Arts was involved in the lighted Pink Triangle placed up at Twin Peaks park for Pride Month last June and left up because the pandemic led to the cancellation of the Pride Parade.
King said she hopes this piece will also get approval and join hers in the concourse because she thinks they belong together. In fact, she said, Davis approached her about becoming involved in the first place.
The original idea was a “call and response” relationship between the two works, with hers located at the eastern end of the Music Concourse. But initially she was not interested.
Even though Key’s statue might be gone, she explained, the plinth it was on “resonates with the same hateful energy,” she said. “He was a horrible anti-abolitionist racist.”
While most American school children learn that Key wrote a poem about victory in an 1814 battle against the British at Fort McHenry that eventually became the U.S. National Anthem, the true depth of his racism is not as well known.
Key has been quoted as calling Africans and their descendants “a distinct and inferior race of people, which all experience proves to be the greatest evil that afflicts a community.” Trained as a lawyer, as district attorney he defended slavery while attacking abolitionists and lobbied President Andrew Jackson to appoint his brother-in-law, Roger B. Taney, to the U.S. Supreme Court. Chief Justice Taney wrote the Dred Scott decision that Black people were not and never could be citizens of the U.S, according to a video put together by sponsors of the project.
Eventually King reconsidered Davis’ offer after thinking about it for a while. She went through several ideas that did not work out until she finally came up with the inspiration that led to Monumental Reckoning.
Ralph Remington, San Francisco’s director of Cultural Affairs welcomed King’s work.
“What Dana King’s powerful installation communicates and commemorates is a sober cultural gut-punch, long overdue,” Remington said. “I hope it’s the beginning of many such visual testaments in the public realm that venerate the origin stories of our most marginalized and disenfranchised populations.
“We almost never see images of Black people represented in our public monuments, or in the American telling of history. So, it’s no surprise that in a society rooted in white supremacy, people of color remain invisible and undervalued in our mythology, symbols, architecture and national narrative. While the City examines the historic works in our Civic Art Collection and the future of monuments in San Francisco, this installation will help build and advance a discourse about who and what we venerate in our open spaces.”
“We are incredibly proud to host this powerful piece,” San Francisco Recreation and Park Department General Manager Phil Ginsburg said. “Monumental Reckoning prompts frank discussion about the legacy of slavery, while charting a course between past, present and future.”
In the spring of 1619, the Spanish slave ship San Juan Bautista left Luanda, Angola, with about 350 African slaves bound for Vera Cruz on the coast of what is now Mexico, according to the Jamestown Rediscovery Project, which is focused on the history of the first permanent English settlement in America.
But on the way there, the ship was attacked by English privateers, which included a ship called the White Lion. They took some of the slaves and sailed to what is now Hampton, Virginia, where they sold more than 20 of them. These were the first known African slaves sold in what is now the United States of America.
“That was the beginning of the business of slavery and from then on 10 million people passed over the Atlantic and arrived here on our shores and were enslaved,” King said. “So, it’s honoring the first people stolen from their homeland. That would be like a spaceship landing here and sucking us in and taking us all to Mars. They didn’t know where they were going.”
The 350 figures are meant to represent all who were enslaved in America.
“I want them to look into the faces of these ancestors around the plinth and see themselves; because they represent not just survival but success, strength and power,” King said.
She recognizes that, for some people, bringing up the subject of slavery might be painful or make them uncomfortable. It is something they already know about and do not need reminding. But for now, she thinks it is necessary.
“Unless and until we’re all educated about America’s past we have to continue to put that truth out there in the public realm,” she said. “It’s an awful history. It’s a harmful history. But it is our history.
“If we don’t want to see it because it makes us uncomfortable, that is not reason enough to not tell the story and the truth of the story. Our job is to educate.”
Her opinion is that it is up to the individual viewer to determine where they stand.
“Was it so egregious that it’s changed their perception of that person? That’s each of our decision to make. But we have to have the opportunity to make that decision,” she said. “If we continue to bury it, we’ll never get past it. It’s part of our origin story as African descendants. And there needs to be acknowledgment from the government that this happened and that it was a violation of human rights. And with that acknowledgment we can start to heal. Everyone can start to heal.”