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Thursday, July 1, 2004 04:54 pm

Dishonoring Lincoln, big-time

art1189
“Corporate State: 1984,” photographed in 1982 with students who helped create it. Mike Townsend is standing on the right.

"Everything faded into mist. The past was erased, the erasure was forgotten, the lie became truth. . . . This process of continual alteration was applied not only to newspapers, but to books, periodicals, pamphlets, posters, leaflets, films, soundtracks, cartoons, photographs -- to every kind of literature or documentation which might conceivably hold any political or ideological significance. . . . In this way every prediction made by the Party could be shown by documentary evidence to have been correct. . . . All history was a palimpsest, scraped clean and reinscribed exactly as often as necessary. In no case would it have been possible, once the deed was done, to prove that any falsification had taken place." -- George Orwell, 1984

Springfield's city fathers, in a doomed attempt to create the appearance of a racially harmonious wonderland, have inflicted two deep and permanent scars on the showcase Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum before its doors are even opened to the public. It is almost impossible to conceive a worse debut for a historic attraction that is expected to draw visitors from around the world.

The first and deepest laceration was the forced removal of 1,600 low-income black people who lived in the John Hay Homes public-housing project, within walking distance of the Lincoln shrines. The local powers that be fantasized welfare mothers, their unruly children, and drug-dazed boyfriends contaminating downtown Springfield on a daily basis, blasting their boom boxes, breaking into cars, snatching purses, and just generally being rude to our tourists. The John Hay Homes had to go.

A scheme of planned deterioration and gradual depopulation was concocted. Maintenance services were drastically reduced, and as living units slipped into disrepair, they were boarded up. Minor lease violations that had been ignored for years were suddenly enforced to the letter of the law, and evictions skyrocketed, with the vacant units shuttered as quickly as possible. It was not unusual to drive by the projects and see piles of furniture and personal belongings heaped at the side of the curb. One resident recalls counting 11 evicted families on a single day. As vacancies mounted and rental income declined, it was inevitable that the John Hay Homes would become history. How convenient for the downtown shrine planners. Most importantly, the plan had, in military terms, "plausible deniability." In other words, the destruction of the John Hay Homes was to be blamed on the "lowlifes" who lived there, not on the long-term plans of the money people downtown.

The saddest thing about the demolition of the John Hay Homes is the almost total lack of concern about what happened to the residents. Relocation plans were minimal for most and non-existent for many. Sixteen hundred people were scattered to the wind with an attitude of "good riddance." Although construction of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum was still on the drawing board, the first permanent scar had already been savagely inflicted, and the media had disguised the crime from the people. No dissent, no problem. The macho leaders of the city's power structure had stomped the hell out of a large group of poor black women and children -- and gotten away with it in an act of straight-up victimization of the weak by the powerful. High fives all around at the country-club benefit for orphans in Uganda.

The second laceration occurred only recently -- mid-June, in fact. It involved the defacing -- or, more accurately, the disappearance -- of a large African-American-created mural. Since 1982, a huge, colorful mural titled "Corporate State: 1984" had been displayed on the north wall of the neighborhood facilities building, at 1411 E. Jefferson St., facing the John Hay Homes. For 22 years, its depiction of social, economic, and political injustice silently irritated the class-with-no-class like an unseen boil on a banker's ass.

One section of the mural portrays a large box, stuffed with people of color, headed up a conveyor belt and into an industrial grinder, which is spitting out a blizzard of dollar bills. That's exactly what happened to the people living in the John Hay Homes. Created and painted by the now nationally known black artist John Yancey and eight East Side students, the mural was tolerated because it was off the beaten path. With the construction of the Madison Street mini-expressway, however, things changed. One of the chief functions of Madison Street is to funnel tourists quickly and pleasantly into and out of downtown Springfield. One of the unpleasant things Madison Street travelers will no longer see is the John Hay Homes, because they have joined the "disappeared." One of the things motorists might have seen, however, was that huge "socialistic" mural. You see, Madison Street now runs right by the now whitewashed mural. From being observed by relatively few when off the beaten path, the mural would have been seen by thousands every day. The Springfield State Journal-Register (the "Ministry of Truth," in Orwell's words), always eager to please its corporate clients, enthusiastically justified the culture crime with a full-blown editorial in its daily newspaper. The newspaper didn't feel the mural presented the best message to our national and international visitors. A depiction of Lincoln "freeing the slaves," for example, would be much better. Perhaps a business, perhaps Wal-Mart, could commission a sign company to paint a mural of Lincoln, with grateful, grinning blacks throwing themselves at his feet. In the background, Wal-Mart's "smiley face" corporate logo could symbolize a rising sun of hope, wishing blacks "better luck in the future."

One thing was certain, it was time for a culture cleansing. Like the John Hay Homes, "Corporate State: 1984" would have to go before the opening of the new presidential library. And so, one recent day in mid-June, a shroud of white-supremacy paint was applied to the giant 23-by-74-foot mural. It was a deliberate act of cultural genocide carried out quickly and quietly by the thought police on orders issued by important people (the "Party," in Orwell's terms) meeting in secret. No public notice or discussion. No neighborhood consultation. No contact with the original artists. Total disrespect for the black community. Just "now you see it, now you don't." A naked illustration of the white power to destroy over the black power to create. The second laceration was complete.

But what went unnoticed by the Lincoln-shrine planners was that in mutilating the black community, they were permanently disgracing their own new, treasured creation. Instead of reacting in what can only be described as a state of racial paranoia, they should have studied the mural more closely. Although it depicted society's problems in Orwellian symbols, it also offered a powerful message of hope that the planners completely misinterpreted. Although they claimed that the mural communicated a message of helplessness and victimization, it was, in fact, their destructive assaults on the black community that told the common people, "Dissent is futile. Resistance will be not be tolerated." These are the messages that will now forever haunt the despoiled presidential library. They may as well be carved above its grand entryway, or that of the State Journal-Register.

Serious critics of art and literature may well judge John Yancey's mural, "Corporate State: 1984," a masterpiece, one of the most important and provocative murals ever created in our country. What's remarkable is that we didn't recognize it -- no, couldn't recognize it -- until it had been destroyed. Yancey's genius, conscious or not, was to create a mural that was a testof Orwell's warnings concerning the future shape of society. If Orwell was right, the mural would have to be erased from all memory banks. If he was wrong, the mural would be maintained and restored to its original magnificence whenever the elements had dimmed its vibrant colors. The question stood unanswered for 22 long years. In Springfield, the first sign that Orwell's predictions were, unfortunately, right was the removal of the John Hay Homes. The second sign was the removal of the mural itself. Yancey's ingenious project is finally over and Springfield's powerbrokers failed the test in a fit of wicked irony equaled only by the seriousness of the issues at hand. Black lives, black art, and black history -- all sacrificed in honor of the Great Emancipator. Oh, the power, the beauty, and the mystery of art!

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