“‘Whose Roads Lead Everywhere to All’: Notes Following a Conversation with Lorraine O’Grady”

In April, I published “‘Whose Roads Lead Everywhere to All’: Notes Following a Conversation with Lorraine O’Grady,” an essay on the myths made by institutions and artists, in Art, an Index to (see also Politics). The book was edited by Carin Kuoni and Amanda Parmer and published by the Vera List Center for Art and Politics, where I was a fellow from 2013 until 2015, on the occasion of its twenty-fifth anniversary. The essay reflects on—and is meant to continue, for readers—a conversation with the artist and critic Lorraine O’Grady, who also was a fellow at the Vera List Center. Below is the entire essay with illustrations, which is not yet available online.

You grew up in Boston in the 1930s and 1940s, the daughter of Jamaican immigrants who joined in the construction of the city’s first West Indian Episcopal Church, St. Cyprian’s. You were surrounded by myths that were and were not your own, may or may not have addressed you but nevertheless spoke to you. For instance, on the wall of the Boston Public Library, facing Boylston Street, in monumental lettering: THE COMMONWEALTH REQUIRES THE EDUCATION OF THE PEOPLE AS THE SAFEGUARD OF ORDER AND LIBERTY. On the facade: a chain of window arches and a bust of Minerva, goddess of wisdom. Beneath each window: the names of great men—writers, artists, scientists, philosophers, and statesmen—carved into stone. With visitors from around the world, you scaled the stairs of the massive neoclassical building, constructed in 1895, and were prompted to recall the ideals of 1865, 1776, 400 B.C. You entered the lobby, a superabundance of marble quarried from such exotic locales as Sienna, Tunisia, and Levanto. You studied John Singer Sargent’s series of murals, The Triumph of Religion (1890–1919), made to sanctify what the painter called a “shrine of letters.”

The main branch of the Boston Public Library, 1909.

When I walk through the lobby of the library, fashioned after the Parthenon, I feel transported to a high-end interior-design emporium. And the building strikes me as a fortress against ignorance (if not the ignorant) as much as infrastructure for elevation. The mission the founders of the BPL—the first municipal library in the world to be supported by the government and free to the public—was to ennoble the citizenry, but they were also anxious about the masses reacting, revolting, indulging in orgies of violence and destruction, etc. After all, the architecture refers to the kind of ancient monument that was the preserve of priests and off limits to the uninitiated. Boston’s finest, John Adams and John Quincy Adams, believed in strong safeguards against the base tendencies of the commoners. “A Notion prevails among all Parties that it is politest and genteelest to be on the Side of Administration, that the better Sort, the Wiser Few, are on one Side; and that the Multitude, the Vulgar, the Herd, the Rabble, the Mob only are on the other,” wrote the elder Adams.

Legal Cash Market, Inman Square, Boston, date unknown.

My mother grew up in Boston, and her family is still concentrated in the neighborhood of Newton—she recalls not having met, or not having realized that she had met, anyone who wasn’t Jewish before the age of twelve. In 1904, my great-grandfather, Harry, had opened an Inman Square grocery store called Legal Cash Market, which accepted government-issued cash stamps. When you were a child, Harry’s son added a fish counter that served fried fillets to go; then he opened a fish market next door, which later became a restaurant, then a popular chain of restaurants (now open at a New England airport near you).

Beyond the story of my Jewish-immigrant family starting a thriving business—which now is memorialized on the restaurant’s website, in histories of Cambridge, and in the reproductions of photographs and newspaper articles that adorn the walls of each location—I never learned much about the history of the city. I got the sense that my family, however involved in transacting with and serving all kinds of Bostonians, all kinds of diners and suppliers and realtors, nevertheless remained part of an inward-oriented clan; everyone seems to have spent months or years working at the fish counter, frying cod, waiting tables, or managing operations. When, in my childhood, my family visited Boston, we shuttled between the houses of my mother’s aunts, uncles, and cousins; took the requisite walks along the cobblestone paths of the Freedom Trail, pausing to read each historical marker aloud and in full; followed my father’s guide to notable homes, civic structures, and monuments, listened as he recited the names of the icons associated with them. These were the pieces of a story.

Stanley Forman, The Soiling of Old Glory, 1976.

Only after moving from Tucson, Arizona, to Providence, Rhode Island, for college, did I get a different sense of the region, or a sense of the history that had been somewhat submerged. I became aware of the violent and prolonged struggle to desegregate Boston’s public schools, which began in the mid-1970s and was covered by newspapers around the country. The symbol of this shameful period is Stanley Forman’s The Soiling of Old Glory (1976), a photograph of anti-busing protestors attacking a black attorney with a pole draped with an American flag, published in the Boston Herald American.

Now, when I visit the BPL, I can’t help but think about Sargent’s murals in relation to Forman’s photograph. The epic story told through Sargent’s immaculate depictions of Biblical and mythological figures—pagan gods, Gog and Magog, oppressed Israelites, prophets, angels, Christ, the legion of the damned—extols the freedom of individuals to learn and determine their own beliefs, and not be subjected to arbitrary authorities or antiquated dogma. Western civilization progresses, gradually but inexorably, through spiritual and intellectual enlightenment. Forman’s photograph, meanwhile, conjures a very different story: that of progress frustrated or only ever imagined, Boston as not so different from Birmingham.

John Singer Sargent, Sketch for Gog and Magog, Falling Figure, Boston Public Library Murals, 1903–16.

“O happy town beside the sea,” Emerson wrote of Boston, “Whose roads lead everywhere to all.”

Lorraine O’Grady, Mlle Bourgeoise Noire whipping herself, 1981.

Can you imagine yourself in 2043—or, if not yourself, an avatar formed by fragments of your body and artifacts of your digital presence? Can you envision yourself as an elegant, attractive woman in a dress constructed from white gloves, entering the lobby of a celebrated institution where throngs of museum habitués are enjoying drinks and small talk, wielding a cat-o-nine-tails made of sail rope, reading poems that harangue those in attendance for accepting second-class status, for upholding segregation? Can you account for the changes that have and haven’t occurred, the stories that have and haven’t made a difference, between however many decades or centuries ago and today? Can you say how you understood the present in relation to the past and the future as you invented characters, forged narratives, addressed readers? Can you recall expecting the myths that you concocted to circulate for one hour, one year, one century, forever, as long as necessary, as long as possible?