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Recognizing African-American history

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Why does North Carolina need an African-American Freedom Monument? The answer may be more obvious to some than others. That was the major discussion at the second statewide conference of the North Carolina Freedom Monument Project (NCFMP), a forum for creating a commemorative icon for African-American history to be placed on the capitol grounds.

As the project's steering committee, advisory board members and concerned citizens filed into the Museum of History's auditorium for a day of debates, youth speeches, and performances, they all had one common purpose--to affirm the reasons why North Carolina should recognize African-American achievement.

"The history of any place that Americans value we preserve with taxpayers' money," said Dorothy Spruill Redford, curator of Somerset Plantation. "When I look around, I don't see representations of me. I feel as though it is 'taxation without representation.' When you ignore my history, you are saying that I am insignificant."

The conference dealt with issues of dissension early. Do we really need a monument built specifically for the commemoration of African-American history? Shouldn't we be attempting to bridge cultural divides rather than to recognize and/or possibly celebrate our divisions? Those were the arguments Karl Campbell, a history professor at Appalachian State University, envisions the project encountering.

Rather than dismissing such questions as sincere sentiments, or simple naivete, Campbell addressed such sophism head-on, referring to it as the "colorblindness of the new redemption." As much as segregation enabled white racists in government to retain their shrinking powers through the transparent guise of "separate but equal," Campbell argued that what we see occurring today--perhaps in the too-easy use of the word "multicultural," or the assumption still that justice is blind--is just as dangerous, if not more so, as the blatant racism shown to black students during integration. Members of the government might not be throwing rocks, but the deceptive attempt to undermine black history by pretending it never happened could certainly prove more fatal in the long run.

Poet and activist Jaki Shelton Green, another panelist, discussed how amnesia is also a form of memory, warning those in the audience that "what we keep keeps us," and thus, it was as important to create a monument that recognized suffering as well as joy.

In addition to ongoing discussions about the composition and significance of the monument, the conference also incorporated singing, dancing and theater into its agenda, including a performance by Chuck Davis' African-American Dance Ensemble, a one-woman theatrical tribute to Harriet Tubman by Joyce Grear of Wilmington, and an interactive singing performance by Ann Hunt Smith of Raleigh. Youth speeches on the importance of preserving African-American history were given by Imhotep Mujahid of Durham and Carmen Murchison of Raleigh.

The tentative location for the monument is the state capitol grounds, requested by the project's members in order to enrich the state's history represented at the capitol, which currently displays many symbols of the state's Confederate past. Rather than creating a monument that simply focuses on the great African-American achievers of the past, like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., conference attendees say that they would like a monument that tells a story, and that bridges the gap between generations. "The most successful monuments are those that do not hold to the past but have connections to the future," says Jeffrey York, director of public art and community design for the N.C. Arts Council.

The project will continue holding community meetings across the state for the rest of the summer, and then will assemble a design selection committee to complete plans for the monument's design and develop requests for qualifying artists. Suggestions for the monument include a walk-in tunnel that chronologically traces events in black history, a triangular monolith, and a trail of monuments throughout North Carolina, beginning at the capitol grounds.

"I think that the monument should be more specific to North Carolina and the achievements that blacks, like Senator George White from Carrboro, have made," said Reginald Watson, assistant professor of English at East Carolina University. "I also think that the monument should be more pictorial. Young people want to see concrete images of history. They want to see Africa, Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks as images in this project,"

While the specifics of the monument are still up for debate, the overarching concept of the project is set in stone.

"We are the bridge for this legacy," Green said. "If I have any children, I want them to stand before this monument with their children and all get the story together."

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