Or, Why Art Matters
Not all pilgrimages involve ordeals.
Sometimes, all we have to do is decide something is meaningful enough to trek up a cinder cone volcano and bear witness to what is there.
It was a day of intermittent sun and icy rain. We climbed the steps and muddy pathways upward, sheltered by tall Douglas firs that had dropped limbs and branch tips, creating a rich green carpet everywhere.
Rounding the closed off drive, I caught glimpses of distant clouds, and city.
And then I saw it. The thing we had come to see.
It was much larger than I thought it would be. Larger than any photograph had been able to convey.
It was monumental. Meditative. Ponderous.
Atop a marble plinth at the apex of the dormant volcano, a beautiful, bronze colored head of a young Black man tilted downward, held upon a strong, bronze neck, above a layer of concrete inscribed with a single name.
The man’s eyes are closed, as if he is thinking, or at rest. His cheeks and brow are both soft and powerfully formed.
I stand, breathing in the cold air, tinged with storms and coming spring. Clambering on a concrete bench, I strive to get a different view.
A fresh perspective.
And then, the strident voice cuts through the hush on the sacred mountaintop.
“What do you think of this statue?”
I turn toward the speaker. It’s an older white man, mask worn down around his chin. He is smiling at me, but his voice holds a challenge.
“I love it,” I reply. “It’s beautiful.” Hoping my firm tone will end the conversation, I look back to the statue.
The man is not done. He wanted to argue with me about people pulling down statues. Why was it okay to pull down a statue without going through proper channels?
“Why should we have a statue of an ‘Indian killer’ up here? That’s what Harvey Scott was,” I say. “Besides, the artist probably didn’t pull the other statue down.”*
Well, he agreed with me, you see, and the statue of York was a fine one, indeed, but still, what did I think about people just tearing down statues and putting up what they wanted? What if a Republican had put up a statue?
He spouted some more. I would not back down.
“People put up art all the time. One reason I like living in a city is the changing landscape of art always appearing everywhere.”
“Oh, I’m a fan of anarchist art in principle,” he says.
“Just not in practice,” I replied.
Finally, he saw he would get no joy of me, and it was clear I was getting ready to end the conversation in a far more rude and final way.
He wished me good day and loped off.
The “devil’s advocate” as he called himself, had broken the peace in an attempt to tear the monument down with feeble words.
Even a Black man long gone—the first African to cross the North American continent—can find no peace in death.
York’s legacy will always be challenged by the petty and the small. Just as Clark refused to give York his freedom, the white man on the mountain refused to acknowledge his power.
Well, York, I made a simple pilgrimage to you that day. I saw the roses scattered at the base of your tall plinth. I witnessed the beautiful sweep of your head, surrounded by trees that rooted in earth, and reached for sky.
We walked back down the cinder cone in icy rain. I felt grateful that, despite the men who stole you and forced your labor, and would not let you be free, you lived a story worth telling.
You walked through forests and rode down rivers, you scouted, and hunted, and set up camp. You saw places none of your ancestors ever saw.
I don’t know how angry or defeated you must have sometimes felt. I do not know your sorrow, hope, or pain.
What I do know is this: your life is worth honoring, and no petty, small-minded white man can take that away.
And because of this statue, more people will know your story, and your name. The stories of Lewis and Clark, and the likes of Harvey Scott—and everyone their lives impacted—will be thrown under scrutiny, and more of the truth be told.
All art hints at a story.
All art is political.
The artist(s) who made this tribute to York’s life fashioned something fine.
*I apologize for my use of the term “Indian” here to refer to the Indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest. In the moment, I pulled on a historically used phrase I thought this man would comprehend.
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