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A Street Mural Examines Modern Slavery

BROOKLYN, NEW YORK – SEPT 2017. The murals in the historic neighborhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant bind the neighborhood together. Many celebrate important African-Americans leaders and educators, many more function as gravestones for the dozens of young black men killed by gun and drug violence in the 1980s and ’90s. Corey, Pop, Larry, Jessie, Cavlar – all have memorial murals. On their death anniversaries, people sometimes leave open bottles of liquor, flowers, and lit candles. Both types of murals work to support cultural and collective integrity; they function as flags. Here is a mural to the monetarily nicknamed Cash Dro.

A Street Mural Examines Modern Slavery, photo essay by Regan Good

In the historic neighborhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant, murals exist to keep the community together– and to help it remember. Many murals in this neighborhood depict images of the young black men who died here in the 80s and 90s of gun violence: Peanut, Kevin, Louis, Shorty, to name a few. Other murals of African-American leaders like Malcolm X and MLK Jr. dot the neighborhood. One entire block is given over to a row of six foot tall, brightly painted portraits of leaders like Stokely Carmichael, Nelson Mandela, and Angela Davis. But I am interested in a small mural that was painted by a different artist on a pair of driveway gates that interrupt the cinder block wall. This image is of two figures one on top of the other. On top: A white man in overalls preaches from a Big Book open on his knee. He could very well be a slave owner and cotton farmer. Underneath this bellowing figure, is a young contemporary African-American man wearing a Moorehouse College sweatshirt. He stands, arms akimbo, crucified; he holds books in each of his hands where the nails should be. What does this mean? The complexity is staggering. Does it telegraph that African-Americans are still enslaved by the white man’s religion? That their ancestors still are required to adopt the white man’s ways, his God, his middle-class values? Does it underscore the busted American Dream for African-Americans? Despite the contributions made by the people whose portraits surround this potent image, our Preacher/Moorehouse student mural reminds us that slavery remains the bedrock of our national perversion and that contemporary African-Americans remain societally enslaved.

(by Regan Good)

BROOKLYN, NEW YORK – SEPT 2017 On Throop Ave, between Green and Van Buren, someone has painted a block-long, eight-foot-tall line of portraits of African-American leaders on a cinder-block fence. Each portrait is separated from the portraits next to it by a painted African spear. The gallery of portraits begins with Bob Marley.
BROOKLYN, NEW YORK – SEPT 2017 After Bob, the portraits appear in this order: Stokely Carmichael, Malcolm X, the Honorable Robert Carson, Dr. Betty Shabazz, Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela, and Angela Davis—all are uniformly painted by the same hand.
BROOKLYN, NEW YORK – SEPT 2017 Malcolm X’s panel and his descriptor: “More than just a man.”
BROOKLYN, NEW YORK – SEPT 2017 These murals are arresting, but there is a smaller mural, painted by another artist on a pair of metal doors that interrupts the parade of portraits, that is truly fascinating. The image (roughly three feet by three feet) actually consists of two related images, one on top of the other. The top image is of a large white man wearing overalls and sitting with a big book on his knee. He holds forth as he quotes from the big book—the Bible. Though the mural is badly peeling, you can tell he had a big mouth. The bottom image is of a young contemporary black man, crucified. His arms stretched out, he holds two books in either hand. The books are where the nails should be.
BROOKLYN, NEW YORK – SEPT 2017 Here is a close up of the white farmer, preaching, one instructional figure raised, as he engages in Protestant evangelism, a tool for manipulating converted slaves to be good and slavish like the ones found in the Old Testament. Despite African slaves bringing with them ancestral religions and beliefs, Christianity ultimately effaced them all. We know that religions are generational, so religion was a tool with serious shelf life.
BROOKLYN, NEW YORK – SEPT 2017 The farmer’s word balloon has worn away. What was the white farmer bellowing about? Is he repeating St. Paul’s words in Ephesians 6:5-9: “Servants, be obedient to them that are your masters according to the flesh, with fear and trembling, in singleness of your heart, as unto Christ”? As a soul is obedient to Christ, so is a slave obedient to his master. How tidily this newfound religion explains and reinforces the rightness of captivity—religious teaching can function as a prison.
BROOKLYN, NEW YORK – SEPT 2017 The crucified young black man wears a Moorehouse College sweatshirt. Moorehouse is an all-male historically black college founded after the Civil War. What does this reference mean? Is it that even when young black men in our culture play the game, do the right things, work hard to attend college, they remain crucified by American society? The image telegraphs the idea that African Americans indoctrinated into Christianity—and ultimately American culture itself—remain societally crucified.
BROOKLYN, NEW YORK – SEPT 2017 The image is brilliantly informative and completely tragic: having lost ancestral religions, lands, and connections—the African American is now falsely integrated into American society, costumed in an American college sweatshirt like a white, middle-class American kid. The contemporary African-American man, a descendant of slaves, has given his life to the White God. Like Christ, they too bear the Cross.
The Honorable Robert (Sonny) Carson’s nearby portrait and his simple admonishment to “Stay in School!” means little to our Moorehouse graduate still in chains.

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Regan Good

[b.1967] Regan Good is a poet and writer living in Brooklyn, New York.

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