350 figures, representing the first 350 kidnapped Africans to be brought to the US as slaves, will encircle the plinth that once held Francis Scott Key.
Juneteenth is this Saturday, and the Music Concourse at Golden Gate Park is preparing to welcome a profound and impressive sculptural installation honoring the first 350 African ancestors that were kidnapped and put on a ship to America back in 1619.
Monumental Reckoning, an installation by sculptor Dana King, will be unveiled this Friday, June 18 at 5pm. The evening will include an unveiling event by SF Mayor London Breed, a choir rendition of James Weldon Johnson’s “Lift Every Voice And Sing,” a Libation ceremony by local activist Wanda Sabir, and performances by African drummers and jazz musician Martin Luther McCoy. You may reserve a spot to attend the free ceremony here.
Sculptor Dana King has created 350 solemn sculptures to form a ring around the plinth that once held a statue of Francis Scott Key. Each of the ancestors is formed by a stack of black coils arranged in a cone shaped-body, topped with a flat black oval face with braided wires as hair. Illuminate SF, well-known for their beautiful light installations around the city, will install the words “Lift Every Voice” atop the Spreckles Temple of Music as an ode to Johnson’s hymn. The GoFundMe to finance the installation has raised over $320,000.
On Juneteenth 2020, protestors came to Golden Gate Park and toppled the statue of Francis Scott Key, which stood atop a plinth in the Music Concourse. Key was famous for writing the lyrics to “The Star Spangled Banner,” our country’s national anthem, but he was also a slave owner and outspoken racist. In fact, the lesser-known third verse of the anthem includes a disparaging remark about slaves. That’s why “Lift Every Voice And Sing” by James Weldon Johnson is widely considered to be the Black national anthem of the United States, and it will be sung during this Friday’s unveiling.
Dana King, who you may know from her time as a broadcast journalist at KPIX in San Francisco, is a classic figurative sculptor whose work primarily features Black bodies, first sculpted in clay and then cast in bronze. Her website states that she prefers sculptures “because they inhabit space and space is power.” She carefully researches the stories she wants to represent, and places emphasis on representing shared values across generations.
Of course, this sculptural installation for Juneteenth is largely a response to last year’s events on the same day, but it also occupies a space all on its own. The solemn circle of Black bodies has unmistakable traces to the origins of slavery in the United States, the progression of a tiered society based on skin color, and the nationwide reckoning and protests following George Floyd’s murder in May of 2020. The exhibition works to expressively connect today’s society with that of our nation’s beginnings, finding relevance both in today’s events and those of 1619.
Juneteenth is a holiday celebrating the emancipation of slaves in Texas on June 19, 1865. President Lincoln actually signed the Emancipation Proclamation over 2 years earlier, but it was on this date that federal troops arrived in Galveston, Texas to free all people who were still being enslaved due to their owners’ defiance of the Proclamation. The holiday has been celebrated since 1866, but it receives increasing national recognition each year. This Tuesday, June 15, 2021, the Senate unanimously passed a resolution to recognize Juneteenth as a federal holiday. The House and President Biden must now sign off for it to become law.