Imagine if the United States democracy should fall victim to an insurrection by a confederacy of well-funded, well-armed and well-trained white supremacist groups. Think of something of the ilk of the Ku Klux Klan or some modern reincarnation of post-Weimar Germany’s Nazi Party. After implementing a systematic campaign of slaughter of the majority of African-American males by burning them alive, or for dramatic effect, in public displays of lynchings from streetlight poles lining downtown districts, the conquerors would amuse themselves with the most feral prosecution of rape against the adolescent and adult black female populations. Assume, further, that the women and girls who survived such an onslaught would be consigned to the reinstitution of slavery in the new American nation-state. Not content with mere biological extinction and subjugation of an ethnic group and gender, this confederacy of supremacists would then turn its attention towards a campaign of cultural genocide. There was little debate among their leadership as to the merits or legitimacy of this new chapter of the war, and the intent was clear: to erase all vestiges of black folks in America as thinking, spiritual and creative citizens of the globe. And since the warriors of this supremacist movement viewed themselves as righteous Christian crusaders undertaking a mission ordained by a white Christian god who had elevated Caucasians to hold dominion over the dark-skinned races of the earth, the purge proceeded methodically from state to state, from city to city. No museum, no classroom, no library, no gallery and no public square escaped the cultural cleansing. No more Romare Bearden originals, no more Elizabeth Catlett sculptures, no more James Van Der Zee photographic prints and not a single Richard Yarde canvas were left to be enjoyed by any teary eyes.
In Hartford, vandals invaded the Amistad Center for Art & Culture, either looting or destroying its precious collection of artifacts of the African-American experience. In New York City, these zealous Christian knights firebombed the interior of the Studio Museum in Harlem. In the nation’s capital, the Martin Luther King Memorial at the National Mall was toppled and shattered, torn asunder with the assistance of a motley assembly of pickup trucks, grappling hooks and jackhammers enlisted for breaking down the 30-foot statue, as well its adjoining components, into easily-manageable slabs of granite. From there, a task force of true believers would carry on with their mission. Since they were commissioned by the provisional government’s new Council of Righteous Arts Volunteers & Evangelical Nationalists (aka CRAVEN), they would zoom south on I-95 to Richmond, VA while whistling Dixie and bragging how a vengeful Christian god had made their movement invincible and beyond any earthly judgment. As such, condemnations and sanctions from Mexico and Canada fell upon deaf ears.
Upon arriving in the capital of the old Confederacy, which they treasured as sacred soil, those steadfast volunteers would topple and melt down that bronze statue erected to honor the legacy of tennis immortal Arthur Ashe. There were, of course, itinerant groups of true believers recruited in every city and village to assist with the cleansing. But the honor, the quintessential honor of destroying the Barack Obama Presidential Library was to be bestowed on only those most dedicated of zealots, those Christian warriors whose acts of genocide and rape held highest the burning cross before an honor guard dressed in white robes and hoods. Within three years of the supremacist conquest, the Pax Caucasiana, all vestiges of African-American creativity and accomplishment had been expunged. Black folks had once again become the invisible man—and nearly extinct.
By these acts of vandalism and cultural obliteration, the supremacists had administered a perverse auction of time itself. In that demonic exchange, all the time great artists expended to fund the creative process, to ferment their creative vision and to wield, mold and apply their plastic media, all of those weeks in the studio and months of labored artistry were traded for the time it took to destroy unique creations. But zealots could care less that months of painstaking precision by an artist’s paintbrush or a sculptor’s chisel should be so devalued, should be so diminished, that they were traded for the eighty-three minutes it took to topple the MLK Monument or the thirty-two minutes it took to burn a collection of Beardens. However, this exchange had linked to it a corresponding trade. The time that the viewing public had to enjoy those works of art, whether that be a decade or a slow-moving century, was itself mortgaged for that eternity which unfolds, and which we and successive generations must endure, without the calming presence of a particular masterpiece. For even if sanity could somehow be restored, even if efforts were made to recreate, painstakingly, all the shattered and melted monuments or incinerated paintings, they would never be that exact same phenomenon ushered from an artist’s hands and eyes and soul.
That is the horror story; that is the wretched nightmare. But it is more analogy as opposed to fantasy for such is the nature of what is happening in the Middle East. The depredations of ISIL fanatics are destroying works of art millennia old, a heritage—not only of the Arab world—but of all humankind. We were first alerted to this Islamist (not to be confused with Islamic) madness just months before the 9/11 attacks. It was then when the Afghan Taliban destroyed the Buddha sculptures of Bamiyan. Those twin wonders were carved long ago within the side of a sandstone cliff and, for 1,700 years, once constituted the tallest standing Buddhist statues in the world at heights of over 170 ft. and 115 ft., respectively. In March 2001, the Taliban had the monuments dynamited because they were deemed to be idols inconsistent with their warped vision of a great faith—as if Buddhism itself was not a great faith. (The next time you fly to Rio de Janeiro imagine what the Taliban or ISIL or any group of that ilk would do to the 125-foot-tall statue of Christ the Redeemer which has become symbolic of Brazilian tourism.) Recently, reports have circulated that the war criminals known as ISIL had ransacked a museum in Iraq, smashing 2,000-year-old artifacts from the ancient Assyrian empire. And for the same reason as the Taliban: a supremacist view of Islam that finds it impossible, not only to tolerate cultural diversity, but to even respect the artistic achievements of a long-dead civilization that posed no threat of revival. So with the work of smashing sledgehammers, ISIL trades the time it took to destroy those historic artifacts for the eternity they will be lost to the eyes of humankind. Once again, fanatics offer nothing but their hate in exchange for mankind’s art.
We did not need any more reasons to condemn the ISILs, Taliban and Al-Quaedas of the world. And murder, rape and slavery cast a more towering shadow of evil over the conscience of civilization. But attacks on cultural diversity constitute an assault against us all. As MLK stated, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” So I ask the African-American community directly, but really all Americans: how would you feel if white supremacists destroyed Dr. King’s monument? Would you be irate? Then have the same outrage of Iraq, and don’t be blind to the horrors unfolding in the Near East. However, just as important, be thankful that the treasures we have stored in Hartford’s Amistad Center, Harlem’s Studio Museum and all other similar venues will never fall victim to a supremacist ideology that would trade expression of great hate for expression of far greater art. – Geronimo Redstone, author of The Bachelor Scrolls