Exploring the creation of African American Memorials

The African American Cultural Memorial Garden Located in Cleveland, Ohio.

African American memorials have long been represented in the form of abstract artwork, often resembling shapes made with granite, brick or smooth stone. As a result, memorials dedicated to African Americans lacked a clear narrative to them, often requiring interpretation of the abstract artwork. By definition, abstract art is hard to contextualize or even relate to; As described by Gregory Feist and Tara Brady,  "abstract art has many things going against it from a preference perspective: it is not prototypical, not familiar, there may be little balance and much complexity, and it, by definition, is not representational"(Feist and Brady, 78). The inability for a monument to be representational of the group it is dedicated to, essentially defeats the purpose of erecting the monument. Correct representation of history of violence and oppression against African Americans in the form of memorials, is paramount both in terms of remembering and honoring the past.  Additionally, many of the memorials did not individualize African Americans specifically those who were enslaved. The effects of both abstract artwork and the the grouping of African Americans in memorials resulted in a weaker message that could easily be misinterpreted or changed over time. Newer memorials dedicated to African Americans have now transitioned to life like sculptures that directly confront issues that were once considered too sensitive. These memorials are much more visceral and directly express the emotions of agony and turmoil in slaves face. By utilizing imagery and individualizing slavery, more importance is given to both slaves identity and the message of the memorials it self. The change from abstract memorials to those incorporating imagery and structure, has in part been caused by the increase in prevalence of imagery depicting racism and abuse towards African Americans in mass media. 

African Burial Ground National Monument 1
The African Burial Ground National Monument contains approximately 15,000 skeletal remains of free and enslaved Africans.

Monuments give an unique opportunity to pay tribute to a specific group of people or an individual, eternalizing history in the form of artwork.  As Arthur Danto, an American art critic and philosopher stated, "We erect monuments so that we shall always remember and build memorials so that we shall never forget" (Danto 1998, 153). Pictured above is a prime example of a powerful memorial. The African Burial Ground National Monument contains roughly 15,000 bones of Africans who lost their lives as a result of slavery. The primary elements of this site, is a large granite block that contains languages from various African countries in addition to a large bowl made of granite that represents a Circle of Diaspora. Despite it's meaningful purpose, the African Burial Ground National Monument message could be misinterpreted if not for signs providing text on the actual monument. This in addition to the lack of any real imagery, results in a monument that while remains extremely important, doesn't distinctly depict the true meaning of the monument. As a result, the purpose of the monument, could and eventually will be misinterpreted as time progresses, deteriorating both the history and meaning of the African Burial Ground National Monument. For example, the Auschwitz Museum, features real shoes, luggage and hair from the Jewish people that were killed in the camp. Through the utilization of such powerful objects, the history and message of the exhibit is communicated more effectively.

Columbia Memorial.jpg
One of the first memorials dedicated to African Americans on state grounds

The transition to more visceral monuments and memorials dedicated to African Americans represents a chance to accurately represent the history of African Americans in the United States. Pictured above, South Carolina African American History memorial tells the history of African Americans, from the middle passage to current day. Images of violence against African Americans is seen throughout the memorial and depicts a brutal history through the use of images. The increase in interest in violence against African Americans is directly related to the abundance of personal devices able to capture video and images. As  Victor Oguejiofor Okafor describes in his survey of emergent grassroots protests and public perception of justice, "due to modern technologies of instantaneous mass communication, including ubiquitous social media and pocket-size instant video recording devices, news of such killings now tend to spread like wild fire across the globe almost within hours of their occurrence. Not surprisingly, public awareness and public reactions to such outrageous events have escalated"(Okafor, 43). Examples of the effect of instantaneous mass communication can be seen in the deaths of Eric Garner, Michael Brown, and Trayvon Martin. The graphic footage such as the video of Eric Garner being choked and eventually killed by police force those who watch to confront the violence. As the images and videos of violence against African Americans have become increasingly accessible, a change has occurred, forcing people to confront the issue of the history of violence against African Americans. As a result, the memorializing of violence against African Americans has transitioned as well, now depicting graphic imagery and more realistic depictions of slavery instead of abstract artwork.  As monuments depicting the history of violence increase, both the message and effect of the monument become more powerful.

The National Memorial for Peace and Justice, located in Montgomery, Alabama.

The lack of visceral monuments dedicated to the history of African Americans is beginning to be acknowledged and fixed as we progress to a more visual age. The National Memorial for Peace and Justice represents the transition to more visceral memorials and is the first lynching memorial in the United States. Created in 2016, the memorial is located in Alabama and features lifelike statues representing those that participated in the Montgomery Bus Boycott and those who were involuntarily ripped apart from their families and enslaved. The primary element of the memorial is the over 700  steel blocks with the name of every county in the United States where a lynching has taken place. The sheer volume of lynchings represented, the use of text,  and realistic statues, utilizes imagery to convey the violence towards African Americans. In creating such a powerful image, the memorials message of the pain and suffering is difficult to change or recontextualize as time progresses. The combination of abstract artwork and increased imagery in the form of statues and text, showcase the transition from primarily abstract memorials representing African Americans, to a mixture of both realistic artwork and abstract. As the importance of visual stimulation increases through social media, memorials will also follow suit, giving way to more accurate and meaningful memorials.

Works Cited

Feist, Gregory J., and Tara R. Brady. “Openness to Experience, Non-Conformity, and the

Preference for Abstract Art.” Empirical Studies of the Arts, vol. 22, no. 1, Jan. 2004, pp. 77–89, doi:10.2190/Y7CA-TBY6-V7LR-76GK.  


Okafor, Victor Oguejiofor. "Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, et al.: a survey of

emergent grassroots protests & public perceptions of justice." Journal of Pan African Studies, vol. 7, no. 8, 2015, p. 43+. Literature Resource Center, http://link.galegroup.com/apps/doc/A416718564/LitRC?u=unc_main&sid=LitRC.... Accessed 13 Mar. 2019

Danto, Arthur C. The Wake of Art: Criticism, Philosophy, and the Ends of Taste. G B Arts International, 1998.