During a recent visit to the Cincinnati Art Museum, a portrait of world-renowned artist Kehinde Wiley captivated me. In his piece, “Portrait of Andries Stilte II,” Wiley depicted a young black man in an oversized white t-shirt and baggy jeans, a dress method I saw regularly in my own downtown neighborhood. town. However, it was Wiley’s portrayal of this young man’s posture and not his dress that caught my attention.
Wiley portrayed this man in a powerful pose that evoked the majesty and royalty of the European monarchs that I studied years ago as a high school student of art history in advanced placement. I realized Wiley’s work was one of the few times I’ve seen a portrait of a young black man portrayed in such a dignified way. My exposure to Eurocentric art served as a schoolteacher to me, teaching me that dignity, honor and respect belonged to people unlike me or my peers.
Fortunately, resistance to these propaganda pieces has grown in recent years. As a former millennial and civil rights lawyer, I inhabit a world that was unimaginable in my childhood. Across the country, classrooms, libraries and bookstores are increasingly showcasing the beauty of communities that have been hidden for too long. Curriculum and literature illustrating the vibrant beauty of black, brown, and queer communities finally have a place on educational canvases that have historically whitewashed their presence and contributions to American culture.
Unfortunately, in reaction to the well-deserved acclaim given to the display of these previously whitewashed color palettes, a new iconoclasm is forming in school board meetings and legislative chambers across the country. The term iconoclasm comes from the Greek word meaning “image breaker”, and these new followers of censorship won’t stop until they destroy anything they deem profane.
Unlike the original iconoclasts, these individuals do not attempt to erase images of Christ or the Virgin Mary; rather, it is the portrayal of black youth facing microaggressions, an unjust system of criminal injustice, police brutality, or the legacy of slavery. They seek to erase portrayals of coming-of-age stories for young gay men or narratives involving women taking charge of their bodies and sexuality. It is the erasure of implicit bias training designed to make all students feel welcome in schools, regardless of national origin, sexual orientation, gender identity or religious affiliation. In the crosshairs of their campaign for a return to a bygone monochromatic era are groups and identities that constitute the soul and future of our country.
I have watched with disappointment as these disciples of censorship make concerted efforts to ban material that teaches the history of racism or programs that acknowledge the existence of queer people. Even in Ohio, where a public museum has hosted Wiley’s fine work, there are pending bills that would likely restrict the prospects of individuals who resemble the man featured in his portrait. These bans on truth attempt to take back the paintbrush and the easel from communities of color and queer communities who have fought for generations to have their presence inscribed in the mosaic of our country’s history and future. Yet, as the paint is just beginning to dry on these previously suppressed depictions, this neo-iconoclastic movement seeks to desacralize these images of people of color and queer people and erase them from our historical memory.
However, as evidenced by the ubiquitous amount of imagery in Christian churches around the world today, the early iconoclastic movement failed. If we work together, so will this new permutation. We must tell those who seek to deface our images that we are not profane and will not be erased. We will not allow school board officials to turn our classrooms into monuments of a failed ethnonationalist movement. We will not allow our legislative bodies to cultivate educational institutions that promote revisionist histories based on the subjugation of people of color and queer people.
The original iconoclasts feared that the depiction of religious images in sacred spaces would lead to biblically forbidden idolatry. Likewise, these modern-day adherents fear that talking about the history of race in this country or the existence of sexual minorities will cause future generations to adopt beliefs about inclusion and tolerance that are heretical to systems. of white supremacy and Christian nationalism. However, the beliefs these iconoclasts attempt to destroy are not idols or new gods to be feared. Instead, they are ancient wisdoms that have struggled against oppressive forces that have tried to dull their dynamism and stifle their truth for centuries.
Little do these iconoclasts know, these wisdoms will not herald the end of our democracy, but usher in a radical renewal that will help our country fully become a multiracial and inclusive democracy that respects the contributions and beauty of all Americans.
Antonio L. Ingram II is an attorney at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. His opinions are his own.