A controversial charcoal drawing that was covered up for more than a month is back on display in the Newark, New Jersey, public library. Kara Walker’s work “The Moral Arc of History Ideally Bends Towards Justice But Just As Soon As Not Curves Back Around Toward Barbarism, Sadism, and Unrestrained Chaos,’’ which is on loan from New York City resident Scott London, was covered with a cloth last month after a few library employees complained.
Walker’s piece, the title of which alludes to a phrase often used by Martin Luther King, Jr., depicts some of the injustices that continued to be visited on African Americans after they were freed from slavery following the Civil War. The drawing includes a lynch mob and a burning cross, but what has generated controversy is the depiction of a sexual assault in which a white man holds the head of a nude black woman — misidentified as a slave in some sources — to his groin.
Newark Library director Wilma Grey initially arranged for the drawing to be displayed in the reference room. Although she personally felt that Walker’s piece was “meant to evoke some kind of emotion that says all of these terrible things happened and that we should not be complacent,” Grey chose to cover it up temporarily out of sensitivity to the library employees who were offended. Since then, those employees have talked with library administration to gain a better understanding of intellectual freedom and creative expression that addresses painful or controversial topics. The library has also invited Walker to visit Newark and speak about “the work, artistic freedom and the role of black artists in society.”
Newark Library trustee and Rutgers University history professor Clement A. Price applauded the unveiling of the drawing in a statement to the Star-Ledger newspaper:
The library should be a safe harbor for controversies of all types, and those controversies can be dealt with in the context of what is known about art, about literature, democracy and freedom. There’s no better venue in Newark where such a powerful and potential[ly] controversial drawing should be mounted.
Maren Williams is a reference librarian who enjoys free speech and rescue dogs.