"A portrait is a picture in which there is just a tiny little something not quite right about the mouth." -- John Singer Sargent

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Uncle Ned

This controversial statue of "Uncle Ned" by Giuseppe Moretti is part of the Stephen Foster Memorial in Schenley Plaza in Pittsburgh PA.

As columnist Brian O'Niell put it "...at Foster's feet is a barefoot black man in rags, smiling a gap-toothed smile and picking a banjo." Therein lies the controversy.

O'Niell continues "That's 'Uncle Ned,' an enslaved man who is the title character of one of Foster's songs. Passers-by have to figure all that out for themselves, though. There's no plaque." He quotes Florence Bridges, 72, that "This will be the permanent configuration of our community -- white supremacy and black suppression."

 Actually "Uncle Ned" is identified by the title of the song Foster is shown writing. (Notice that the title and music are reversed to be read by the viewer.)

The lyrics of the song itself are perhaps worse than we might have expected, in terms of modern values. The song uses stereotyped "negro" dialect to lament the death of an enslaved, blind African American musician and it liberally uses the word "Nigga."

Dere was an old Nigga,
dey call'd him Uncle Ned;
He's dead long ago, long ago!

No more hard work
for poor old Ned,
He's gone whar de good Niggas go.

Not surprisingly many people would like to see the Stephen Foster Memorial removed. As Bridges put it, "It must be terrible, because now it's getting on white people's nerves."

In 2002, Robert Perloff suggested some sort of placard discussing the "Uncle Ned" figure and song.
"In casting about for a solution, I discovered a rarely acknowledged fact about the statue. The figure at Foster's feet is a representation of "Uncle Ned" - the namesake of Foster's 1848 song. As Deane L. Root, curator of the Stephen Foster Memorial, told me, the song "Uncle Ned" is widely recognized by music historians as the first anti-slavery song for the popular music market. Black historical figures such as Frederick Douglass and W.E.B. DuBois applauded "Uncle Ned" and Foster's other plantation songs as sympathetic to the plight of the slave.

It's time to erect a placard beside the statue to give viewers the proper context. Rather than being seen as an insult, the statue will be viewed in a new light."
 Chris Potter isn't buying it.
"I find this argument totally unconvincing. Slave owners may have missed their slaves -- especially when they had to do the work themselves -- but that doesn't mean they had the moral intelligence to recognize slaves as human. Slave-owners probably felt bad when their favorite horse died too. Mawkish sentiment, in other words, is no substitute for justice."

Seen in another light, this statue, sitting on a college campus, in this case the University of Pittsburgh, is subject to student folklore; Pitt students rub "Uncle Neds" naked toes for luck.

Potter says "If you ask me, instead of rubbing the statue, we'd be better off rubbing it out."


The excerpts above came from the 1892 illustrated edition of "Uncle Ned" in the Library of Congress.
 The Memorial to Stephen Foster and Uncle Ned was removed on April 26. 2018.
See: Pittsburgh Removes Statue of Stephen Foster and Black Banjo Player, The Washington Post, April 26, 2018.

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