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From worker-brc-news@lists.tao.ca Tue Jun 27 20:26:39 2000
Date: Tue, 27 Jun 2000 13:17:49 -0400
From: Mike Alewitz <alewitzm@mail.ccsu.edu>
Subject: [BRC-NEWS] Harriet Tubman: Armed and Dangerous
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Reprinted in AgitProp News, 17 June 2000.
Special Issue: Harriet Tubman: Armed and Dangerous

Abolitionist's rifle engulfs N.J. artist in fray

By John Yocca, staff writer, Baltimore Sun, 13 June 2000

Her every step a perilous one, famed abolitionist Harriet Tubman could afford no slip-ups as she shuttled slaves to freedom through the Underground Railroad.

Timing was tight, indecision an enemy. When escaped slaves in her care hesitated on the frightening march to liberation, Tubman, a determined and gritty former slave herself, coaxed them northward with a loaded gun.

A century-and-a-half later, New Jersey artist Mike Alewitz chose that Image of Tubman -- a lantern in one hand, a rifle in the other -- as the centerpiece for one of five sprawling ceramic murals he fashioned for the state of Maryland, Tubman's birthplace.

For Alewitz, the depiction is appropriate, both historically accurate And symbolic of the danger Tubman faced as she led more than 300 slaves out Of captivity. But the artist's creation has been less than well received by The nonprofit group that was to display the work on an exterior wall in Baltimore this month.

In a case that pits historical realism against modern sensitivity to the Gun violence gripping American cities, Associated Black Charities says it will likely turn down the piece because the weapon in Tubman's hand sends the wrong message.

"We feel that in the year 2000, it is inappropriate for a piece of artwork depicting guns and violence to be displayed on our wall in Baltimore, which had more than 300 murders last year," said Donna Jones Stanley, 44, the group's executive director. "This is an organization that strengthens the fabric of the African-American community, and I'm not sure this depiction helps us as a community to strengthen ourselves."

Stressing that she is opposed to censorship and that she finds Alewitz's work aesthetically moving, Stanley nevertheless said her group must be careful about what it places on its high-profile building, visible up to a mile away.

"It is a very prominent building," Stanley said. "That means we have a lot of responsibility, and we take that responsibility very seriously."

Today, the nonprofit's board of directors will vote on whether to accept The mural. Stanley said she's confident the board will back her Recommendation to pass on the work.

That's fine with Alewitz, 49, an internationally acclaimed, New Brunswick-based artist who refused a compromise request by Associated Black Charities to turn the rifle into a less controversial staff.

"They don't have an objection to Harriet Tubman," Alewitz said. "They have an objection to Harriet Tubman with a rifle. It's like you want to see wolves in the wild -- but without teeth. They can refuse the mural, and that's their right. We'll find another wall."

The mural, a 25-foot-high, 130-foot-wide tiled mosaic, is one of five Alewitz created for Baltimore Clayworks, a ceramic arts group that Funded the venture with a $25,000 grant from the Mid-Atlantic Arts Foundation. Baltimore Clayworks chose Alewitz from among hundreds of artists across The country.

All five works feature Tubman, a native of Dorchester County, Md.

Blaise DePaolo, the group's community programs coordinator, said Clayworks stands behind Alewitz in the controversy and will find someplace else to display the mural if it's turned away.

The mosaic depicts Tubman as Moses parting the sea, an army of liberated slaves and freedom fighters amassed behind her. On one side of the work, white figures, representing slave masters, are tossed from a boat in the roiling water.

Experts call the gun-wielding woman in the mural an accurate Representation of Tubman, the most famous "conductor" on the Underground Railroad, the network of people committed to help slaves find freedom. Tubman and Others brought escaped slaves from safehouse to safehouse on an arduous trek north. Many of those stops were in New Jersey, including Cape May, where Tubman worked in hotels.

The trip was dicey business. If caught, escaped slaves and those who Helped them faced severe punishment, often death.

Taking no chances, Tubman, who escaped slavery at age 29, armed herself With a pistol. And she wasn't shy about waving it around to make a point.

"Sometimes she would hold a pistol to the slaves' heads and say something like, 'Dead people don't tell no tales,' " said Kay McElvey, a member of a research and information team for the Harriet Tubman organization in Cambridge, Md. "Sometimes she carried rifles as well."

For Alewitz, the Tubman theme was a natural fit. He's made a career of working on behalf of the underdog, the oppressed and the working class.

An ardent opponent of the Vietnam War during the late 1960s and early 1970s, he later focused on labor causes. As the artist in residence for the New Jersey Industrial Union Council AFL-CIO, he designed signs and banners For striking union workers.

Alewitz also serves as artistic director for the Labor, Art and Mural Project, which is in the process of moving from Rutgers University to Central Connecticut State University in New Britain, Conn.

A 10-year New Jersey resident, Alewitz has traveled around the world to paint murals, some of them with a decidedly political bent. And while he's not one to back down from a confrontation, he's not ruffled by the Baltimore flap.

"It's a work of art. They're blowing it out of proportion," he said. "It's one person's expression. You don't have to agree with it."

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