Let’s Make Dances, Not Monuments

by Briana Johnson on January 18, 2022

This is a guest blog from Democracy Moving: Bill T. Jones, Contemporary American Performance, and the Racial Past author Ariel Nereson, Assistant Professor of Dance Studies, University at Buffalo. This volume is available for purchase in hardcover, paper, and accessible ebook formats. 

Confederate General Robert E. Lee, rallying icon of the Lost Cause and contemporary white supremacists, is melting. Or more precisely, his notorious monument, Lee on horseback cast in bronze and looming over Charlottesville, VA, will soon be melted down and turned over to the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center. Echoing the thoughts of many US Americans committed to confronting this nation’s racist past and present, the Center’s executive director, Andrea Douglas, shared that the museum would be guided by the question, “What can you generate out of trauma, so you end up with something that is reflective of our contemporary moment?”1

The trauma Douglas implies results from the symbolic power of white supremacy and racial violence represented by Lee’s figure, and relates directly to ongoing debates about how to represent the historical past in public spaces. Recently, protests in summer 2020 as part of the Movement for Black Lives targeted the memorialization of the national past found in monuments. In October 2020, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation unveiled a $250 million dollar initiative, the largest in the organization’s history, to create and revise monuments, statues, memorials, and markers. Its president, renowned poet Elizabeth Alexander, framed the initiative as “a way of asking, ‘How do we say who we are? How do we teach our history in public places?’…[it’s about] how we can help think about how to give form to the beautiful and extraordinary and powerful multiplicity of American stories.”2 I might suggest that looking to choreographer Bill T. Jones would be instructive on this point, as Jones has been doing this work as a movement-based artist for over forty years.

Jones’s series of works about Abraham Lincoln (2006-2013), the subject of my forthcoming book Democracy Moving: Bill T. Jones, Contemporary American Performance, and the Racial Past, offers danced alternatives to monumentalizing the past. Like Andrea Douglas, Jones is concerned with generating, and the series of questions that guided his work are apt for our contemporary moment: “What does history mean to us?…What does dance mean? What can dance do?”Since the arts have always been part of how communities narrate their pasts, I add the following questions: If the medium is the message, how do sculpture and dance proffer different potentials for narrating the past? How does the project of history, a narration of change over time, shift when it is executed through dance, embodied change over time, space, and force? How does collective memory of the Civil War change when expressed through dance, the art form often deemed most ephemeral, rather than through monumental sculpture, designed to be unchanging and durable?

One touchstone for artists considering Lincoln’s legacy is Thomas Ball’s 1876 Freedmen’s Memorial. In 2020’s protests, the Freedmen’s Memorial was targeted, with historians taking to the opinion pages to defend the statue as protestors called for its removal. Ball’s famous sculpture features Lincoln standing tall, reaching a hand toward the male slave figure who kneels in chains at his feet, above the word “emancipation.”

Figure 1: Thomas Ball’s Freedmen’s Memorial. Photograph published by J. F. Jarvis as Emancipation Monument, Lincoln Park (Washington, DC: J. F. Jarvis, Publisher & Dealer, between 1876 and 1910). Retrieved from the Library of Congress.

Viewing the memorial from our contemporary vantage, its deficiencies are painfully clear. In its own time, the statue came under scrutiny and attack, most famously from Frederick Douglass at its dedication ceremony. The kneeling position of the slave figure was a primary point of critique. Ball’s memorial operated within a network of visual symbols that represented the (male) slave’s plight exclusively through subordination as the condition of Black life. The criticisms of Ball’s kneeling slave then and now are shaped partially by the memorial’s medium as sculpture, “the most conservative of commemorative forms,” according to historian Kirk Savage.4  The monumental scale of the memorial further promoted the significance and “accuracy” of its depiction of emancipation.

The relative durability of the monument supports particular kinds of history-making. Commemorating Lincoln through dance not only looks quite different than commemorating Lincoln through sculpture, but it also offers alternative possibilities for understanding how history is remembered. Jones references Ball’s statue in his 2009 work Fondly Do We Hope…Fervently Do We Pray, repeating Ball’s social choreography and offering an alternative commemorative practice wherein history is always on the move. 

Figure 2: Cast of Fondly Do We Hope . . . Fervently Do We Pray. In foreground, from right: Shayla-Vie Jenkins, Paul Matteson, and LaMichael Leonard Jr. Photograph by Paul B. Goode.

Paul Matteson, dressed in white and standing at center, represents Lincoln, while Shayla-Vie Jenkins and LaMichael Leonard, Jr., both kneeling, reference the memorial’s slave figure. Comparing the images, Jones’s most visible revision is the critical insertion of Black women into the frame of Lincoln’s legacy. This compositional choice is also a restorative gesture. While Black women are not represented as figures on the Freedman’s Memorial, the fundamental role they played in its creation is recognized by a plaque that reads: “The first contribution of five dollars was made by Charlotte Scott. A freedwoman of Virginia …” Jones chooses to represent the contributions of Black women to the commemorative project through figuration, embodied and in motion.

Jones’s choice speaks to what Savage identifies as the failure of Ball’s design “to imagine emancipation at the most fundamental level, in the language of the human body and its interaction with other bodies.”5 Jones’s tableau, a scene of still postures, offers representations of the human form that, because they are enacted kinesthetically, are flexible. This tableau takes place in a network of performed moments; its stillness is heightened aesthetically because of its divergence from the whirling motion on either side of the tableau moment. The language of the human body, its gestures, and postures, can be represented by sculpture, but its motion in and out of those gestures and postures cannot. Imagining the figure of Lincoln and the concept of emancipation finds more nimble, if less durable, representation in dance.

Even this moment of relative stillness belies the activated musculature required of the performers to move into, hold, and move out of their tableau. Attention to the kinesthetic processes, here those of tension, that make possible the moment of stillness reveals the operations of dance as history. For example, Matteson’s gesture reads on three conflicting yet inseparable registers that are striated through shifts in the tension in Matteson’s hands. When Matteson begins, he unfolds his palms slowly and gracefully towards Jenkins and Leonard, with a light tension that feels almost reverential, as though he is anointing them. The gesture quickly turns paternalistic as he places his palms on their foreheads and they lower their eyes, like a father soothing unhappy children. Then the tension in Matteson’s palms increases slightly as he appears to press down on Jenkins and Leonard’s skulls, and their bodies sink towards the floor. The elevated status that Lincoln enjoys in national history, this sequence suggests, is explicable through a basic physics of dance: “down to go up.” Force exerted downward rebounds upward. Read as a critique of the Lincoln historiography, the downward force required to keep Lincoln’s legacy buoyant manifests as persistent constraints on Black mobility.

While Robert E. Lee and Abraham Lincoln represented starkly opposing sides of the Civil War conflict, both men’s monuments have been recognized in recent years as upholding visual languages of white supremacy in public space. In the last days of 2020, a replica of Ball’s memorial (the original still stands in Lincoln Park in Washington, D.C.) was removed from Park Square in Boston. While the city does not currently plan to melt Lincoln down, how to frame this monument responsibly in public space remains an ongoing conversation. Beyond inviting Jones’s company to perform Fondly Do We Hope…Fervently Do We Pray, the city might consider inviting choreographers and dancers into this conversation, as the liberatory social formations sought through historical and contemporary abolition movements might materialize through the making of dances, not monuments.

1Qtd. In Teo Armus, “Charlottesville’s Robert E. Lee statue will be melted down…” Washington Post, December 7, 2021, https://www.washingtonpost.com/dc-md-va/2021/12/07/charlottesville-melt-robert-lee-statue/ (accessed December 10, 2021).

2Qtd. in Jennifer Schuessler, “Mellon Foundation to Spend $250 Million to Reimagine Monuments,” New York Times, October 5, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/10/05/arts/mellon-foundation-monuments.html (accessed October 5, 2020).

3Archival video of Serenade/The Proposition, courtesy Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Company.

4Kirk Savage, Standing Soldiers, Kneeling Slaves: Race, War, and Monument in Nineteenth-Century America (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1997), 4.

5Ibid., 119.

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