For over a decade, The Genius of America has been hidden.
While some may read the above line as an accurate appraisal of the state of our nation, I am actually referring to the massive 19th century mural that adorns the Chancellors Hall auditorium of the state Education Building in Albany. Since 2000 the painting, an allegorical celebration of the country’s virtues, wrought in the sweeping, Romantic style of its day by the French artist Adolphe Yvon, has been deliberately obscured behind a heavy stage curtain.
The reason for its veiling was that several department staff members had complained that The Genius of America was offensive—in particular, the depiction of a slave in a corner of the tableau being held under his arms by a white man, a figurative representation of African-Americans being lifted out of bondage.
In deciding to return the image to view earlier this year, Dr. John King, New York’s first black commissioner of education, saw an opportunity to engage the public in a substantive discussion of race and the changing mores of America. In other words, our state’s top educator sought to educate.
Dr. King should be applauded for his initiative. The fact that none other than the state’s education department decided it was better to censor a work of art than to allow people to reflect upon its merits for themselves is indicative of a larger failure in this country to converse thoughtfully about prejudice and ignorance.
Take the case of Dov Hikind’s Purim costume. From the moment the photos of Hikind in blackface were reported upon, practically every elected official in the five boroughs raced to pile on the assemblyman with their own statement of outrage at his insensitivity. For Hikind, who has built a career around denouncing bias in others, the response was something of a karmic comeuppance.
And yet the reaction to Hikind was no more constructive than the indignation he seethes at anti-Semitism whenever it arises. There was no genuine attempt made to inspire a dialogue as to how even an intelligent, worldly person like Hikind could fail to understand the offensiveness of his actions. Instead the politicians played to the cameras, hoping their sound bites would be punchy enough to make the evening news.
This type of grandstanding is clearly not the way to precipitate a meaningful discussion in this nation about race—a discussion we so badly need to have. Let us not forget that the true genius of America is the freedoms of thought, speech and expression our founding fathers enshrined in the Constitution.
We could all learn a thing or two from Dr. King—both John and Martin Luther, the latter of whom taught us that “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that.”