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STEINBERG: ‘Wall of Respect’ less remembered but more significant

Wall of Respect. | Photo by Darryl Cowherd, featured in The Wall of Respect: Public Art and Black Liberation in 1960s Chicago. Northwestern University Press.

Gwendolyn Brooks read a poem at two dedications of public Chicago artworks in August 1967.

The first everyone knows about. Big, front-page news then and now: the unveiling of the Picasso sculpture in Daley Plaza. You couldn’t miss its anniversary earlier this month.

That dedication 50 years ago was attended by Mayor Richard J. Daley and tens of thousands of onlookers. The Chicago Symphony Orchestra performed.

The poem Brooks read at the dedication radiated unease. “Man visits art, but squirms,” she read.

The second dedication, Aug. 27, 1967, is far less known, then and now. Daley stayed home, and its anniversary passed without hoopla Sunday.

That dedication was of a mural known as the “Wall of Respect.” While less famous, it has more to say to our present political moment, with Confederate monuments to white supremacy being debated and a president mouthing racist codes.

OPINION

The Wall was a series of portraits of black heroes painted on an abandoned building at 43rd and Langley.

Brooks was more comfortable at that dedication. She knew exactly where she was.

“South of success and east of gloss and glass,” she read.

The wall depicted Muhammad Ali, arms raised in triumph, Malcolm X, Marcus Garvey, Bill Russell, Billie Holiday, and others — though not, significantly, Martin Luther King, who had been deftly played by Daley earlier that summer when he tried to bring his open occupancy movement to Chicago.

The Wall is important, not as enduring artwork — the building burned in 1971, the murals are gone — but as a statement that people who are routinely ignored can still manifest themselves, at least in their own neighborhood. The Wall was influential; hundreds of similar displays of pride went up in cities across the country.

“It was a major intervention into public space in a visible way. It was provocative,” said Rebecca Elizabeth Zorach, an art history professor at Northwestern University, and one of three editors of “The Wall of Respect: Public Art and Black Liberation in 1960s Chicago,” an illustrated collection of essays being published next month.

“There was a sense of trying to connect within the black community, trying to connect intellectuals and everyday people into a movement,” said Zorach. “The arts were seen as the best way to do that. It generated a lot of activity: poetry readings and political rallies and musical performances.”

Fitting then that I learned about the Wall through a poem, in Kevin Coval’s new collection, “A People’s History of Chicago,” a verse revisitation of the bits left out of the standard Fort Dearborn/Mrs. O’Leary’s Cow/1893 Fair/Al Capone histories. Its relentless polemic edge might put some off, but it has many fine lines. I can’t decide if my favorite is dubbing Hugh Hefner “the Walt Disney of misogyny” or this, in his keel-hauling of Rahm Emanuel:

the same ladder your family climbed

you kick the rungs from

Coval’s poem “Wall of Respect: Aug. 27, 1967” explains:

a few weeks after

the bird/woman sculpture

revealed politicians don’t know

much bout anything, ‘specially art.

on the side of a tavern

next to Johnny’s tv & radio repair

a store that fixes the image, the wall

a shrine to Black creativity.

You don’t need to go to France and hire the greatest artist in the world to make an impact. You can paint an abandoned building down the block and send out echoes. The heart breaks, to compare the resources behind the permanent agglomeration of steel plate in Daley Plaza with the roughly painted, transient cry of those shunted to the margins and struggling to find a way north and west, to that gloss and glass Brooks mentioned.

They had it better then, since the forces against them were more clear, more frank. Now racism exists in a nebulous fog of codes and evasion. Haters today seize the language of liberation, portraying themselves as the true victims. The chipping away of their overwhelming privilege, even a little, is enough to send them out into the street with torches. Coval ends a poem:

a Black mayor, a Black president.

everything will change & nothing will.

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