I attended a meeting in downtown Brooklyn a few months ago. There is a sculpture of an alligator rising up from the sewer biting a figure of a ‘money man’. I think there are several of these sculptures through the city.
I avoid the area because every time I see that sculpture, a knot forms in my gut. In good weather, there are usually a lot of people milling about, often taking photos of it and laughing at it. I’m sure that is what the artist intended – that there would be laughter at the sight of this alligator chomping on the money-headed figure.
Except, the sight of the sculpture doesn’t bring up laughter for me. I am instantly awash – every time – in the overwhelming feeling of how unsafe Black children have always been in these United States of America. Instead of laughing along with New Yorkers like the artist surely intended, I remember the often reputed reports of a peculiar kind of “alligator bait” – Black babies. The reports that confirm that this practice was not widespread do not soothe any anger I feel. It was widespread enough that Florida warned against the use of the image of “the alligator lying in wait of pickaninnies” because they feared it was “destructive advertising” and negatively impact the development of their livestock industry .
As a child, I remember hearing the phrase “they are going to feed you to the alligators” as a cautionary saying uttered by adults who wanted to warn us not to wander off too far from their sight. I never thought anything of that saying, never tried to find out what they meant, and never did any research on my own – until this day when those words of warning washed over me again as I stared at this installation.
I certainly don’t want the installation removed. The image does not depict a Black child; it is intended, I think, to be a rebuke on capitalism or something. Or maybe it is just art which does not need explanation or to be justified – its meaning lives in the eyes of the beholder. People should have the space and grace to laugh and enjoy whatever is the artist’s intent.
Some of us carry in our bodies the traumatic legacy of the images of our dehumanization. We are always walking – sometimes very tenderly – into and through spaces of violent remembrance. I felt disoriented and needed to stop and take a breath.
I hope that I will be even more mindful of how others may experience trauma and pain in the spaces that I find to be liberating and joyful.
In the moments where some find space to laugh and enjoy, and others are gasping for grace to take a deep, healing breath lives a prayer for the creation of a community – in the here and now – where there is no room for violence. No room for that.