Every year or so, someone wanders into the basement lobby of the Georgia Department of Agriculture building across from the state Capitol and is shocked to see two murals depicting what appear to be buff, shirtless slaves picking cotton while top-hatted Southern land barons survey their crops. But what, really, is the source of the surprise here?
The paintings are part of a series of eight murals displayed throughout the building that portray the long history of agriculture in Georgia. Since we're all aware of the central role that slavery played in the state's largely agrarian economy prior to the Civil War, the onlookers' shock must either come from the attitude of the murals' portrayal of blacks or the fact that paintings of slaves would be exhibited publicly at all.
A few weeks back, CL's editorial board opined that the state Capitol grounds should be cleared of a statue honoring white supremacist Thomas E. Watson. A decade ago, we were also among the many voices calling for the removal of the Confederate battle emblem from the state flag, which had been modified in 1956 by a Georgia Legislature thumbing its nose at court-mandated segregation. But we can't really see the point of removing 50-year-old murals from the Ag building lobby — a place that gets maybe a dozen public visitors a day — as Commissioner-elect Gary Black has said he plans to do.
From the Stone Mountain carving to the Cyclorama, Georgia has plenty of public reminders of its messy past. As a general rule, we should strive to learn from our history rather than sweep it under the rug because it reminds us of unpleasant times. Potentially offensive objects or symbols should be judged on such factors as their creators' intent, impact on the viewer, artistic merit and cultural significance. It's an easy call to say Watson's statue should be removed from its place of prominence because it glorifies a man primarily remembered today as a virulent racist. But we wouldn't advocate Watson-authored books be purged from public libraries or his name scratched off historic plaques.
As for the Ag building murals, they might benefit from an explanatory plaque, but simply singling out the two paintings that depict slavery smacks of historical whitewashing. Certainly, they're worthwhile as a conversation starter. Unfortunately, most of the people expressing opinions about the controversial artwork have never seen them in person in the context of the full series of murals. We believe the best way to deal with Georgia's sometimes unsavory legacy is to face it.
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