Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Genuis* (for Genius*)

It doesn't take a genius to know that an 18' x 30' 19th-century mural should not be covered up for over a decade in the musty if rather magnificent auditorium known as Chancellors Hall, housed in the State Education Building in Albany, New York. It did, however, take a new commissioner (John King, Jr., the state's first black education commissioner) to finally raise the curtain on this politically incorrect sticky wicket. The painting, by Adolphe Yvon, hung in the hall for over half a century, but by the year 2000, some African-American employees had begun to complain about its portrayal of slaves and Native Americans, particularly the image of "a slave in a loincloth ... rising up with a two-handed assist from a bearded white figure." Commissioner King wrote the following apologia in defense of his decision to throw some light on this dark chapter in our country's history: "Because the interpretation of history changes over time, this 'lesson' in American virtues can be seen as outdated and offensive. Liberated slaves and Native Americans, for example, are depicted through the sensibilities of the time, and the romantic images conceived by the artist contrast sharply with reality. Indeed, late-nineteenth century America was not a land of opportunity for all. Learning stories of the past is necessary, however, in order for us to understand where we are in the present, and what may shape our future." Staff from the New York State Museum have created an informational website about the mural. We uncovered 32 cases of Genuis* (for genius*) in OhioLINK (about half of which were proper names or foreign words), and 442 in WorldCat. Untruncated, there were 16 and 210.

(The Genius of America by Adolphe Yvon, 1858, from Wikimedia Commons.)

Carol Reid

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