By Sydney Leibfritz
The recent forum “Reading and Rereading History: Art, Commemoration, and Sewanee’s Campus” was the Project on Slavery, Race, and Reconciliation’s first public forum of the Easter 2018 semester and only its fourth thus far.
Sewanee professors Dr. Shelley MacLaren of the art and art history departments and Dr. Chris McDonough of the classics department served as the featured speakers, discussing the stained glass windows in the narthex of All Saints’ and alternative methods of commemorating the University’s past.
The forum opened with MacLaren’s analysis of Narthex windows. These windows depict the University’s history although, as MacLaren argued, they are anything but unbiased and seem to speak more to the values of the time they were constructed than the milestones they depict. For this, MacLaren first turned to the medium of the artwork.
One window depicts a scene of Leonidas Polk writing a letter; this depiction invokes imagery from the infamous “Sword over Gown” portrait of Polk, which formerly hung in Convocation and has since moved to the University Archives, as covered by The Purple two years ago. The sword resting beside the desk shows Polk’s participation in the Civil War.
The narthex windows also contain the seal of the Confederacy and its placement above the national flag carries its own implications of current ties. For further evidence, MacLaren located a few news articles concerning Sewanee’s Centennial celebration, which proudly boast headlines such as “Sewanee’s Purpose not changed in 100 years” and “University of the South’s History to Repeat.”
MacLaren then discussed the historical inaccuracy of multiple windows and the dangerous “reality effect” they pose in rewriting history. First, the destruction of the Cornerstone, which was cited as being chosen simply for “its dramatic effect.” The scene itself is also politically charged in its representation of cowardly and destructive Union soldiers juxtaposed with the peaceful and benevolent procession of religious Confederates in the image directly beneath.
The history chosen to be displayed was not entirely accurate and glamorizes the darker sides of Sewanee, particularly its Confederate roots. This dichotomy leads its audience to side with the benevolence of the South and Sewanee rather than the malicious outsiders. Other inaccuracies include the exaggerated importance of the fundraising trip to England and the restaging of the Gift of St. Luke’s.
MacLaren concluded by cautioning against viewing these windows are historical as “all art is an argument.” Because these windows were created in the midst of the Civil Rights Movement and likely in order to push back against the reforms, MacLaren declared these windows are “unreliable witnesses at best and beautiful and dangerous liars at worst.”
In the latter half of the forum’s presentations, McDonough proposed, “There is a natural lifecycle to monuments.” The peak, he explained, is normally its inauguration with celebrations and festivities and then they remain like “immovable stones against the currents of history” until challenged or forgotten.
The Kirby-Smith memorial, which has recently been relocated to the cemetery due to a request from a descendant as covered by The Purple last semester, serves as a testament to this. “We erect monuments to always remember, and we erect memorials to never forget,” McDonough claimed.
He proposed a new solution inspired by the “cite memoire” exhibit in Montreal. The Montreal exhibition features a series of images projected onto monuments to remind citizens of the history surrounding them. Because of the fleeting nature of the project, McDonough suggested this might be an interesting way to critique, reexamine, and remember the history of the University.
McDonough even suggested possible images, like an autograph from Louis Armstrong to his host after he was not permitted to stay at the Sewanee Inn.
As the presentations concluded and the conversation opened to the audience, many began to question how other elements of All Saints, such as the high altarpiece, the main stained glass windows, and the paddles describing the history, connect or reinforce the ideas discussed. There was also a brief discussion of how to address and propose new monuments in the future.
“This is a conversation, and we encourage participation from as many people as possible moving forward,” Dr. Woody Register, chair of the project, said.
When asked what material she would like to see discussed in the future, Emily Badgett (C‘20) stated, “I hope in the future the Slavery Project will extend into investigating the impact these monuments carry in today’s context. How are they impacting admissions, living situations, and holding Sewanee back from what it could be? I’d love to see questions like that come more into play.”
With the amount of dialogue the project has provoked in the past year alone, the Project on Slavery, Race, and Reconciliation seems on track for further growth and participation in the years to come.