Monuments: Adam Clayton Powell Jr and Great Man-ism

Written April 2022

Walking down 125th street is like walking down almost any other street in New York; buildings to each side brandish names: Krispy Kreme, FedEx, Bank of America, H&M. Suddenly, at the corner of Adam Clayton Powell Jr Boulevard, the street opens to reveal the Adam Clayton Powell Jr State Office Building towering, solitary and disconnected, above the corporate storefronts. Every time I’ve walked down this street, I have had to stop and admire this building in its eminence…it is forthright, otherworldly, sanitized, menacing. It is glorious, but something about it is off-putting. And the expanse of sidewalk in front of it is bizarre for those used to the invariability of New York pedestrian life. In this expanse sits a monument to Powell himself, Higher Ground.

Branly Cadet, Higher Ground, 2005, bronze.

Powell strides onwards and upwards atop a stainless-steel plinth reminiscent of a submarine or perhaps something extra-terrestrial. The plinth reads: “KEEP THE FAITH” and “Press forward at all times, climbing forward toward that higher ground of the harmonious society that shapes the laws of man to the laws of God.” In his hand, he holds the congressional record. On his face, an upwards look of determination and bravado. His physical and mental strength are on show as if Higher Ground is whispering to us “here is a Great Man.” He strides up, up, up, and away into the American Dream, into heaven. Like the building behind it, Higher Ground is glorious yet removed in some way from the human world.

Very far away from 125th and Adam Clayton Powell Jr Blvd is Plymouth, England. Here, following the efforts of the campaign group Save Our Statues, a statue of Sir Francis Drake — a slave trader, and colonialist — stands proud despite protests. From his stone plinth, Drake stares out with an upwards look of determination and bravado, one foot forward, holding a sword and a globe — direct references to his global exploitation and violence. The visual similarities with Higher Ground are unsettling.

We cannot help but hear this statue, too, whisper to us “here is a Great Man.” It rings in our ears, and we wince.

Joseph Boehm, Sir Francis Drake, 1883, bronze.

What does it mean to have the first black congressman depicted following the style and motifs used to depict a slaveowner?

When Marc Quinn sculpted Alison Lapper Pregnant for the Fourth Plinth of Trafalgar, an attempt to include an image of disabled motherhood among the masculinized “Great Men” of Trafalgar Square, did he present a ‘new way’ of monumentalizing, or did he appeal to the same tradition as the plinth of Horatio Nelson? Powell, Drake, Lapper, Nelson all stare out with an upwards look of determination and bravado.

Marc Quinn is also whispering. “This is a Great (wo)Man.”

Left: Marc Quinn, Alison Lapper Pregnant, displayed 2005–2007, marble. Right: Edward Hodges Baily, Admiral Horatio Nelson, 1843, sandstone.

Monuments rely on the process of glorifying, whispering “Great Man.” They rely on conforming to the most patriarchal and white supremacist parts of our tradition because their purpose is to raise the monumentalized person up to the status of those previously monumentalized (in a world where those previously glorified are almost exclusively slaveowners, war mongers, colonizers…white men.) As such, there is an inescapable force calling us to depict Allison Lapper like Admiral Horatio Nelson and Adam Clayton Powell Jr like Sir Francis Drake. Can we escape it? Do we even have the tools?

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British student living in NYC who writes about art, literature, politics and other things sometimes. linktr.ee/georgebrain

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Georgina Brainerd

Georgina Brainerd

British student living in NYC who writes about art, literature, politics and other things sometimes. linktr.ee/georgebrain

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