The Freedman and the 54th Massachusetts

About a Week ago, I discovered that this wonderful bronze cast is at the Amon Carter Museum of American Art in Fort Worth, Texas as part of its permanent collection.

Bronze cast of 'the Freedman' from the Amon Carter Museum of American Art

Whenever I encounter a new piece of art, I like to look it over, to see if I can figure out what might have been going on in the head of the artist (Impossible to know for sure, I know) or how a contemporary of the period would have seen the piece (A little more doable). What struck me as I looked at the bronze was that it was a dignified portrayal of a slave, one who has not been presented as an object of pity, but a formerly enslaved man who possessed great physical and spiritual depth, courage, and forward vision. This, I know very well, is a rare thing coming out of the 19th century, for an enslaved African or African-American to be portrayed in a manner indicating strength rather than degradation. Here, the one manacle is still on, even as the other has been wrenched from his other wrist to hang suspended in the moment just prior to being cast away. His powerful frame is braced for action, as he is about to raise himself to further defiance. The bronze not only speaks of the liberation of the self, but of future liberations to come. I love this powerful image. I wish I had known of it growing up in 1970s and 1980s rural Texas.

I then stepped over to the wall to see what the museum interpreters and historians had written about the piece.

Wall panel explaining the 'The Freedman'

I’m usually pretty disappointed by the wall plaques. But this one was a real boost to my ego! I’ll have to do penance for my pride later, but I was happy I was at lest on the right track. It is especially gratifying that the statue is dedicated to the 54th Massachusetts Volunteers. And it is a great stroke of good fortune for my future students. Every year, when I teach my courses in African-American autobiography, after reading a few slave narratives I always show the 1989 film, Glory, which is a wonderful Civil War film depicting 54th Massachusetts from its inception to the battle of Fort Wagner. It is, in my opinion, the best Civil War film made prior to the 2012 film Lincoln. I am now seriously thinking of adding an assignment to future courses asking my students to go to the Amon Carter to see The Freedman prior to watching the film, and incorporating the two works of art, the bronze and the film, into a writing assignment of some sort. I wonder what students might come up with?

I wish I had known of this bronze statue growing up.