The Promised Land: II

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A reminder that what follows is my interpretation of the symbolism in this mural. I don’t know whether it’s what the muralist had in mind.

Moving directly below the detail of yesterday’s post, we see a sheriff stopping a would-be immigrant at the border. She carries all that she is taking to start her new life, and it is so very little. The ship in the background is the Mayflower, and symbolizes the first settlers—the people responsible for the foundation of the the United States. The man standing directly behind the woman looks to me to be in colonial dress and I see him not as a real person but as the shade of one of the first settlers—another reminder that those first immigrants created this country. Stretching across the desert behind the woman are crosses, which, to me, stand for the people who lost their lives making the journey to the border into the United States.

At the upper right is a pointing hand. You will see in the detail below whom it belongs to.

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The pointing finger belongs to an angry-looking judge. He is indicating to the would-be immigrants that they should go back to the countries they came from. The sign round his neck refers to House Resolution 4437 “To amend the Immigration and Nationality Act to strengthen enforcement of the immigration laws, to enhance border security, and for other purposes,” introduced in December 2005.

Behind the sheriff, we see George Washington, the father of this country, as a baby. Slightly behind him is his African American nurse wearing chains to symbolize that she is a slave. This detail interests me very much. Depicting servants as smaller than those they serve makes very clear their status as inferiors. You will find the device in ancient Egyptian art. She is also slightly behind him—yet her chained hand is on him. The message is plain, I think: The support of the slaves whose names and faces are lost to us has every bit as much to do with the growth of the United States as do the actions of those whose names and faces are so well-known.

As an aside, it is apparently a shock to many visitors to Mount Vernon, the plantation home of George Washington, to see the slave quarters. I suspect that there’s a reluctance to accept that a revered figure kept slaves, a practice we deplore today. In fact, he inherited 10 slaves from his father, and by his death, there were more than 300 slaves at Mount Vernon. He was considered a “benevolent” slave-owner by his contemporaries. Some of his slaves were taught to read. In later life, he was publicly in favor of the abolition of slavery, and under the terms of his will, he freed his own slaves, but he could not legally free those who belonged to his wife, Martha.

More about this mural tomorrow.

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