There Are Many Reasons For Lady Liberty to Be Represented By a Black Woman, and Only One Reason Why Not
SPOILER: That one reason is racism.
— United States Mint (@usmint) January 12, 2017
Yesterday, the United States Mint unveiled the first in a series of gold “Liberty” coins that were created to celebrate 2017 as the Mint’s 225th Anniversary Year. On this first coin, which you can see in the tweet above, Lady Liberty is a black woman crowned with stars. Since this is America, this naturally led to lots of, um, discussion.
First, let’s get the racism out of the way, shall we?
— SindyM67 (@SindyM67) January 13, 2017
Does she have to? After all, it’s not as if Lady Liberty is an actual person to whom artists should be faithful. She’s the personification of an ideal.
— America First (@JeSuisSylvia) January 12, 2017
If she’s a goddess, then she’s also not a human with a race. NEXT.
Furthermore, while the rumors of Lady Liberty having “originally” been a black woman are untrue—according to a two-year study done by the National Park Service—the facts are that 1) the designers of Lady Liberty were hardcore abolitionists whose views on slavery most certainly informed the statue, 2) broken shackles were replaced with the tablet the Statue of Liberty now holds, 3) original concept drawings for Lady Liberty were based on black Egyptian models from which the artist, Auguste Bartholdi, “proposed…a colossal monument in Egypt.” So, they had nothing to do with his Lady Liberty project, but that’s how the drawings started.
Long story short, if you don’t actually know the history and context of where something came from, maybe don’t talk about it? Juxtaposing two similar-looking statues in a tweet does not “prove your point,” or constitute research.
— Chris (@cmw311) January 13, 2017
Is it a disgrace to be black? A disgrace to have the personification of an ideal be black? No really, TELL ME WHAT YOU MEAN. What, exactly, is “disgraceful?”
Now that the ignorance is out of the way, let’s get to some of the more legitimate criticism. After all, ideas like “liberty” and “patriotism” are complicated for those of us who feel marginalized from those very concepts within our own country. The relationship between the black community and Lady Liberty most certainly has been. According to the study cited above:
“Although African Americans played no active role in the statue’s conception or design, they contributed to the main fund-raising drive for the statue’s pedestal, participated in public celebrations during its dedication in New York City, and conducted their own celebrations at that time as well. African American newspapers throughout the country covered those events extensively. Yet for black Americans the Statue of Liberty has also long symbolized America’s failure to protect their civil rights. In the early 1900s, many African Americans were victims of white supremacists and nativists who used the statue to represent their exclusionary views. Since then, continuing ambiguity among African Americans about whether to embrace “Liberty” hopefully or scorn it as a symbol of American hypocrisy has been expressed in numerous works of art, political debates, and, on at least one occasion, violent protest.”
So, when the Mint revealed this new Lady Liberty coin, the response from the black community wasn’t entirely favorable (shocker of shockers, since no community is a monolith!):
55% of Black workers make under $15 an hour…most of them are women. This takes cheap symbolism to a disturbing new level… https://t.co/FvgcQj3Ypt
— Keeanga-Yamahtta T. (@KeeangaYamahtta) January 13, 2017
Still, even this isn’t a criticism of the coin itself. Rather, it’s a criticism pointing to hypocrisy; that the coin is not enough. Indeed, it becomes meaningless if the idea of Liberty isn’t followed through upon with action. On that, I agree. As someone who specializes in examining how images in media influence things like government policy, I certainly understand that representation in an image (or a film, or on a TV show) is nothing without allowing that symbolism to inform concrete decisions.
But the symbolism is important.
I remember when Beyoncé’s “Run the World (Girls)” first came out, and there was a flurry of thinkpieces and response videos that were quick to criticize the song, some going so far as to call the song harmful, because that’s not the actual truth. Girls don’t run the world. THAT’S THE PROBLEM. As if the importance of anthems and rallying cries, especially from musicians, had entirely escaped them. As if Beyoncé can’t grasp what the world actually is, and is deluded enough to believe that sexism and gender inequality are over. As if her listeners were all naive enough to be brainwashed by the lyrics into thinking that sexism was over, ignoring the sexism they experience in their own lives because Beyoncé said so.
It’s certainly useful to bring up these concerns alongside these uneasy symbols, or anthems, or whatever. After all, they were created in large part to start exactly these kinds of conversations! But the fact that these concerns exist doesn’t make the symbols inherently harmful. Ineffectual, perhaps, but not harmful. And I would argue that their creation does more good than harm, precisely because they start these conversation about next steps.
I think the design of this new coin is beautiful, and since this is the first in a series, I (purely selfishly) hope that we have a Latina coin to look forward to, among others. May these coins inspire Liberty, real liberty, for all our citizens.
(via The Daily Dot, featured image via The United States Mint)
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