[N.B. : My dear editors have pointed out a problem with my using this image for the commentary's header, which is to say that the black background obscures my name and the column's title. As someone who has lived with an obscure name lo these many years, I would have been willing to chance it, but in the interests of consistency of style across our Jackets I have replaced the banner with another. The image lives on here, however, hovering over all that shall soon follow.]
I’m going to start simply by telling the story of this image.
Anna Everett was a young woman from Washington, D.C., who moved to Buffalo, N.Y., in the early 1970s to live with relatives while finishing her high school education. As a new student, she was sent to Lafayette High School, which was only then being integrated. If you’ve read about the integration and bussing battles of that era, you can well imagine the challenges she faced. There weren't attacks on school buses by angry mobs as in Boston, but there were groups of white parents picketing the approach to the school and making it abundantly clear to the small group of black students that they were not welcomed by all. With all deliberate speed, Everett set about making her mark at Lafayette. She joined in school community theatrical productions, and soon enlisted her cousins in the drama. Then she set about painting this image on the interior wall of the school. Even that was a politcal process — the school administration expressed worries about the depicted blindness of the iconic figure, didn’t know whether to push their young student more towards traditional views of Justice or the thwarted welcome of Liberty. In the end, she produced a figure that weighed welcome, that simultaneously promised and withdrew liberty, as if figuring a little known fact about Ellis Island; it was a scene of intake and expulsion. While some entered America through those portals (often undergoing a change of name in the process), others were imprisoned and expelled. Justice, the mural seemed to say, was at best a metaphor.
I had often heard this story over the years and was amazed to learn from a later Lafayette student that the mural was still on that wall decades later. While in Buffalo for a residency at the Poetics Program arranged by Steve McCaffery, I stopped by the high school, and with the staff's permission took this photo. Time and white flight have wrought changes upon Lafayette and upon its surrounding neighborhood, and the mural itself is flaking slightly on the crown, oddly enough in the very space where visitors might be imagined looking out across America to see how liberty and justice for all is faring these days.
Reconceptual isn’t truly a word, though if education writers keep insisting on using it we may one day find it in our dictionaries. The reintegration of Lafayatte High School was/is a project of reconceiving. Everett’s mural was the product of a young artist reconceptualizing America and her own work under the political pressures of her day. In the time of her painting, conceptual art had a purchase on the attentions of American critics and artists, if not many high schools. Poetry has reconceived the conceptual, we are told.
Adrian Piper, we need you, again.