(NEW YORK) — A lot has changed in the year since George Floyd’s death at the hands of police sparked a nationwide reckoning.
Amid the outcry, Confederate monuments were removed and hauled away. Racially insensitive scenes from popular TV shows, like “Golden Girls” and “The Office,” were pulled by streaming services. And, along with all the new racial equity initiatives announced by corporations, some also changed the names of their brands — Aunt Jemima, for example, is now the Pearl Milling Company.
“Could I ever imagine that there’d be a level of compassion, although maybe brief, that I witnessed across the country? I actually could not have imagined that,” said Hank Willis Thomas, a conceptual artist based in Brooklyn, New York.
While the changes over the last year might be one step toward racial equity, people like Thomas are working to ensure there’s a more inclusive landscape for all, not just for now but in the future, too.
Watch “After Floyd: The Year that Shook the World — A Soul of a Nation Special” Tuesday, May 25, at 10 p.m. ET on ABC.
Poet and scholar Elizabeth Alexander is president of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, which pledged $250 million last year to help reimagine the monuments and memorials that fill our parks, plazas and other public places around the country. The initiative is called the Monuments Project.
“It is the biggest initiative in Mellon’s history. … We began to think about what all of these Confederate monuments and buildings named for Confederate heroes, and spaces that revere them — the Jefferson Davis Highway — what is that teaching us?” she told ABC News. “Plain and simple, that is teaching us to venerate white supremacy. The Confederates did not win the [Civil] War.”
“These monuments were erected mostly decades … after the war,” she added. “Even very recently, as acts of provocation, as acts of continuing to solidify an ideology of white supremacy and Black and other inferiority. … And so, when you pause to think about what it means to all of us to be taught an incorrect history with hierarchies that put some people on the bottom and in a subhuman category … that was a problem to address.”
Although his current project isn’t being funded by the Mellon Foundation, Thomas’ monument, named The Embrace, features four 22-foot intertwined bronze arms and will be a tribute to Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King.
“The Embrace was inspired by a photograph I saw of the Kings when Dr. King was being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize,” he said. “I couldn’t help but to think, when I actually looked closely at the image, of the weight that his wife, Coretta Scott King, was carrying even in that moment. He’s hugging her, and you can see her literally holding him up, and the pride and joy in his face. The pride and joy on her face was something that was so special.”
Last summer, as protests broke out across the country in the wake of Floyd’s death, Thomas’ sculpture of a bronze arm arm in downtown Brooklyn — called Unity — became a rallying point for demonstrators, he said.
“There was a huge police presence, and all the protests in Brooklyn would be coming down the street, and it was really amazing [and] powerful,” Thomas told ABC News’ Janai Norman during a recent visit to the sculpture, which was unveiled in 2019.
Politics and history have always been a part of Thomas’ work. In 2017, his sculpture of an Afro pick, named All Power to All People, was installed across the street from Philadelphia’s City Hall, just feet away from a statue of the late Frank Rizzo, a former mayor and police commissioner in the city who once told Philadelphia voters to “vote white.” His statue was removed in June 2020 amid the protests.
Alexander said that Confederate and other war statues around the country carry powerful messages, but often show a biased perspective on history or completely leave out other important perspectives and truths. She said there’s an opportunity to reimagine and build the monument landscape of tomorrow by telling more inclusive and diverse stories through public art.
“If you added up what monuments there are in the United States and thought about how many acts of war and aggression were lifted up … that’s being taught without being told you’re being taught, and I think we have to realize that there’s tremendous opportunity to teach us with a different mindset,” she said.
And yet, even in school, people are pushing for a more comprehensive teaching of Black history. In Cherry Hill, New Jersey, 12-year-old Ebele Azikiwe was days away from finishing sixth grade when the protests over Floyd’s death began. She said that’s when her mother sat her down with her brothers to talk about “what it’s like being Black in America.”
“She’d been really upset and we all could never really figure out why. … I think the conversation was really upsetting,” Ebele told ABC News.
She said it was around this time that she felt compelled to write a letter to her principal. In the letter, she spoke about why her school needed a new curriculum and told her own personal story of the impact of what she’d learned.
“In our school, my continent of Africa is shown as a poverty-filled place. … At a point in my life, it made me feel ashamed of where I’m from. Why did my country have to be disgusting and full of poor villages?” her letter said.
Ebele said she got involved in changing her school’s curriculum because she wanted to better understand her own culture and where she came from.
“If I’m going to have to come to school today, at least let me really learn something I can teach to my kids and I can use,” Ebele said.
Ebele’s letter eventually made its way to her school’s district superintendent, who made it a requirement in high schools to take a Black history course to graduate. It had previously only been an elective.
“If we ask students for their voices and we ask them to tell us what they need, we must be willing to listen and then we must be willing to change,” said Farrah Mahan, the former director of curriculum who is now the assistant superintendent for the school district.
New Jersey, as a whole, passed its own legislation this past March. The bill requires K-12 curriculums to be updated to promote “economic diversity, equity, inclusion, tolerance and belonging in connection with gender and sexual orientation, race and ethnicity, disabilities, religious tolerance and unconscious bias.”
Mahan said its student activists like Ebele who got the state’s bill over the finish line. During a hearing with the State Assembly, Ebele advocated for the law to include curriculum changes for grades K-8, not just grades 9-12, for which the law had originally intended.
“I think the letter was a catalyst for future action,” Mahan said. “We have been actively working for approximately a year now to make sure that we are able to implement the course, and not only an African American studies course but also a social justice course for students.”
For Ebele, learning more about Black history means finally learning about United States history more accurately. It also means eschewing the “colorblind” teachings of the past, to a curriculum that honestly and directly addresses race and our country’s troubled history. It’s a change that Ebele said she feels on a deeply personal level.
“Some people are a little bit like … ‘Whether you’re Black doesn’t matter to me.’ But I think, ‘No,’ I don’t want you to look past it because that does make me a part of why I am Ebele.”
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