Tokenism in Utica

Since the 1960s and 70s, the movements for the empowerment of minority groups and women have had some great successes (and some major disappointments). One of the victories that is worth discussing is the way that today history as told by and about white men has been contested. Our understanding of American and world history has been deeply enriched by the emergence of so many repressed voices-- not to mention that the reclamation of history has led to pride and empowerment amongst modern people.

At the same time, a desire for "political correctness" and for every community to find women's and black history has led to a new type of demeaning tokenism and widespread pigeonholing. The picture at the top of this post is a picture of Utica's attempt to recognize the accomplishments of women. The plaque reads: "The City of Utica dedicates this park in the memory of Maryann Riggalls-Coyne. Her bold spirit helped forge opportunities for past and future generations of women. In both industry and the community, as one of the first females in such business organizations as the Mohawk Builder's Exchange and such civic organizations as Rotary, Ms. Riggalls-Coyne lead the way for all women to dream, to lead and to accomplish."

Now don't get me wrong, I stand firmly behind movements to write the history of suppressed peoples into the landscape using monuments, plaques and similar measures. What I do have a problem with is an organization like the City of Utica creating a token to this movement: a tiny little strip of grass in the heart of a blasted post-industrial ghetto.

Utica has, according to it's Parks and Recreation Website, 39 parks and monuments-an impressive number. To then go ahead and declare that "this one" is about women is insulting. Contrary to its goal of empowering women, it instead reinforces a gender hierarchy by implying that women's concerns are inferior and that women's accomplishments deserve only a median strip in the brownfields. Maybe we should erect plaques to Hispanic entrepreneurs in janitor's closets? Perhaps naming bathrooms in bus stations after Martin Luther King would be a fitting tribute?

This type of insulting bow to "political correctness" is repeated time and time again, not only in our monuments, but in our rituals surrounding history and our celebration of culture. The call for a recognition of Blacks in history is amongst the noblest of traditions, but to segregate it into a single "Black History Month," makes the inference that Black history is not common history that affects all of us but some indulgement of only Black people. It allows for the other 11 months to be the unchallenged domain of White history. Instead of Black History Month, we need a year-round people's history that recognizes that dynamic interplay of all of the peoples that forged the present world.

Likewise, our Upstate cities do not need another Martin Luther King Boulevard. Dr. King's actions deserve celebration, but by having an MLK Boulevard in every city as an antidote to racist street naming patterns systematically denies the existence of local African-American communities and their importance in our own histories. By doing that, it justifies racist ideologies within our cities that view Blacks as recent interlopers from NYC coming up to prey on our decaying communities instead of the long-term community members and humans worthy of dignity that they are.
Just because a plaque contains a touching tribute that calls for empowerment and uplift of women doesn't mean that the message won't be drowned out by the surroundings, it may in fact serve to send subtle messages to young women that their accomplishments will never be truly appreciated.

Just because we have a Black History Month doesn't mean that the story of Black folk will be integrated into the general American story, it may in fact justify their continued exclusion.

Just because we name a road after Dr. Martin Luther King doesn't mean that we recognize the accomplishments of local Black people, it may in fact hinder their recognition.

-By Jesse


Mrs Mecomber said...

Maybe City Hall put up this plaque in the heart of a blasted post-industrial ghetto so the reams and reams of the prostitutes (see today's headline at Utica OD (http://www.uticaod.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20060918/NEWS/609180301/1001) roaming the area would know that they could get a life.

Jesse said...

If that's the case, then it seems to me to be an even greater waste of funds. People turn to prostitution out of desperation, the article you mention here cites drug addiction, and what they need is not to be shamed or guilted into giving up their professions but assistance in breaking the debt/addiction cycle. Will telling a poor working-class woman with a drug addiction and no other hope for employment the story of some middle class woman's successes in the Rotary really help matters?

Natalie said...

Inclusion of those long excluded from history is often a double edged sword.

The desire to do so leads to an elevated recognition of the previously excluded history in the form of a historical character who stands as the exemplar, proclaiming "look! we're trying to correct the ills of the past!" The consequence of this type of treatment is tokenism and pigeonholing and a seperate history, but possibly worse is the idea of a one dimensional history. The women and minorities become noted for a struggle against adversity and little more, which is a pretty shallow view. Martin Luther King, Jr. is an excellent example; he is held up as a symbol of the civil rights movement, a movement that was actually quite multifaceted with differing views within its leadership.

The preservation of history is always a reflection on the time and place of its preservation, and these 'token' monuments will be too. The bright side of course is that when critical minds take a look at them and say "wait, this isn't entirely accurate" and a change occurs, in this case (I hope) a change towards more holistic historical view. The same way the people who put up these monuments looked at the history excluding minorities and women at that time and said "wait..."

Natalie said...

on a less general/philisophical note, who would put a monument in a median? unless the person was involved in some sort of transportation reform, it just seems silly.

medians are big news today.

joe said...

Post-industrial ghetto is a bit much; the area holds a business college, local newspaper, train station, childrens museum.

Natalie said...

Post-industrial ghetto may be a hyperbolization, but things are far from hunky-dorry in Utica. However, out of adversity can come interesting things : http://www.vincentwinter.com/vw/Utica.html