Pittsburgh is handling its racist statue problem in the best possible way.

Some people don't view Pittsburgh's Stephen Foster statue as racist. Those people would be wrong.

Yeah, I'm going there. Stay with me.

The statue, which depicts a borderline caricature of a black musician in tattered clothing playing the banjo at the feet of a regal, well-dressed Stephen Collins Foster — who is often touted as the Father of American Music — will soon be relocated. The city has plans to install in its place a statue of a black woman significant to Pittsburgh's history.


Image via Wally Gobetz/Flickr.

The Foster statue has been a subject of debate in the city for decades. Damon Young, the co-founder of Very Smart Brothas, has called it "the most racist statue in America," with the depiction of the black musician as "the most ridiculous magical Negro you'll ever see."

Welp.

The issue with the statue is partially how it looks but mostly what it represents.

The statue was originally commissioned in 1900 by a local newspaper that envisioned Foster "catching the inspiration for his melodies from the fingers of an old darkey reclining at his feet strumming negro airs upon an old banjo."

Basically what we're looking at is a white man during the slavery era taking the "inspiration" of a poor black person's music and not only profiting from it but becoming the country's foremost music composer because of it.

If you ever wonder what "privilege" and "appropriation" mean, this statue primely illustrates both.

The appropriation of black people's music has a long, painful history in America.

Frederick Douglass. Image via J.C. Buttre/Wikimedia Commons.

Last year, I read "Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass" for the first time. The whole book is a must-read for all Americans, but the chapter about slaves singing absolutely gutted me. It also gave me a deeper understanding of why appropriating the music of black Americans is such a long-standing and problematic issue. Douglass wrote of slave songs:

"Every tone was a testimony against slavery, and a prayer to God for deliverance from chains ... The mere recurrence to those songs, even now, afflicts me; and while I am writing these lines, an expression of feeling has already found its way down my cheek. To those songs I trace my first glimmering conception of the dehumanizing character of slavery. I can never get rid of that conception."

Douglass described the tendency of people — particularly the supposedly more enlightened northerners — to misconstrue the nature of black people's singing:

"I have often been utterly astonished, since I came to the north, to find persons who could speak of the singing, among slaves, as evidence of their contentment and happiness. It is impossible to conceive of a greater mistake. Slaves sing most when they are most unhappy. The songs of the slave represent the sorrows of his heart; and he is relieved by them, only as an aching heart is relieved by its tears ... I have often sung to drown my sorrow, but seldom to express my happiness."

Douglass' narrative was published in 1845, two decades before slavery ended and about the same time Foster began writing his famous songs. If Foster was really feeling inspired from black people "strumming negro airs," then he was profiting from black Americans' artistic expression of pain at a time when they couldn't do so themselves.

American composer Stephen Foster. Photo via Library of Congress/Wikimedia Commons.

Some claim Foster was a fairly decent guy for his time, seeking to humanize slaves and not glorify the antebellum South in his songs. On the other hand, he was knee-deep in the blackface minstrel phenomenon, and some of his lyrics are racially charged to say the least.

"But that was a different era!" people might say. Yes, it was. But in this era, it makes sense to move that statue to a place where it doesn't serve as a painful public reminder of our country's history of racial injustice.

The question we should ask is "What is the purpose of a public statue?"

Unlike art for private consumption and enjoyment, a public statue traditionally honors someone or something. It's a way to memorialize a person or an event — to say "We want to not only remember this person's place in history but commemorate them."

Statues are not, as many seem to argue, a history lesson. There are no statues of Adolf Hitler in Germany for a reason, and it's not because the German people intend to forget his part in history. It's irresponsible to keep a statue that depicts an ugly aspect of history in a way that doesn't make clear how ugly it was.

A bust of Adolf Hitler sits among the ruins of the Chancellery, Berlin, 1945. Photo by Reg Speller/Getty Images.

Foster already has an entire memorial museum in Pittsburgh, so replacing this statue will not affect his legacy there. What it will do is remove a visual glorification of black people's oppression as well as open up a space to honor a black woman who has been significant to history.

The mayor has asked the public to weigh in on which black woman should be honored with a new statue.

There are no public statues or memorials honoring black women in Pittsburgh, a city where an estimated 1 in 5 residents is black. "The City of Pittsburgh believes in inclusivity and equality and ensuring that all can see themselves in the art around them," the mayor's office wrote in a statement. "It is imperative then that our public art reflect the diversity of our city and that we accordingly represent our diverse heroes."

Some suggestions so far include pianist Patricia Prattis Jennings, the first black woman to sign to a full contract with a major American symphony orchestra; Helen Faison, the first black female superintendent in Pittsburgh; Gwendolyn J. Elliot, Pittburgh's first black female police commander; suffragette Daisy Elizabeth Lampkin, who was the first woman elected to the national board of the NAACP; and Hazel B. Garland, the first black woman to head a major newspaper chain.

For many in Pittsburgh, the removal of the Stephen Foster statue would have been enough. But replacing the statue with one honoring a black woman is a thoughtful step forward — one that other cities with controversial statues would be wise to follow.

When "bobcat" trended on Twitter this week, no one anticipated the unreal series of events they were about to witness. The bizarre bobcat encounter was captured on a security cam video and...well...you just have to see it. (Read the following description if you want to be prepared, or skip down to the video if you want to be surprised. I promise, it's a wild ride either way.)

In a North Carolina neighborhood that looks like a present-day Pleasantville, a man carries a cup of coffee and a plate of brownies out to his car. "Good mornin!" he calls cheerfully to a neighbor jogging by. As he sets his coffee cup on the hood of the car, he says, "I need to wash my car." Well, shucks. His wife enters the camera frame on the other side of the car.

So far, it's just about the most classic modern Americana scene imaginable. And then...

A horrifying "rrrrawwwww!" Blood-curdling screaming. Running. Panic. The man abandons the brownies, races to his wife's side of the car, then emerges with an animal in his hands. He holds the creature up like Rafiki holding up Simba, then yells in its face, "Oh my god! It's a bobcat! Oh my god!"

Then he hucks the bobcat across the yard with all his might.

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Images courtesy of John Scully, Walden University, Ingrid Scully
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Since March of 2020, over 29 million Americans have been diagnosed with COVID-19, according to the CDC. Over 540,000 have died in the United States as this unprecedented pandemic has swept the globe. And yet, by the end of 2020, it looked like science was winning: vaccines had been developed.

In celebration of the power of science we spoke to three people: an individual, a medical provider, and a vaccine scientist about how vaccines have impacted them throughout their lives. Here are their answers:

John Scully, 79, resident of Florida

Photo courtesy of John Scully

When John Scully was born, America was in the midst of an epidemic: tens of thousands of children in the United States were falling ill with paralytic poliomyelitis — otherwise known as polio, a disease that attacks the central nervous system and often leaves its victims partially or fully paralyzed.

"As kids, we were all afraid of getting polio," he says, "because if you got polio, you could end up in the dreaded iron lung and we were all terrified of those." Iron lungs were respirators that enclosed most of a person's body; people with severe cases often would end up in these respirators as they fought for their lives.

John remembers going to see matinee showings of cowboy movies on Saturdays and, before the movie, shorts would run. "Usually they showed the news," he says, "but I just remember seeing this one clip warning us about polio and it just showed all these kids in iron lungs." If kids survived the iron lung, they'd often come back to school on crutches, in leg braces, or in wheelchairs.

"We all tried to be really careful in the summer — or, as we called it back then, 'polio season,''" John says. This was because every year around Memorial Day, major outbreaks would begin to emerge and they'd spike sometime around August. People weren't really sure how the disease spread at the time, but many believed it traveled through the water. There was no cure — and every child was susceptible to getting sick with it.

"We couldn't swim in hot weather," he remembers, "and the municipal outdoor pool would close down in August."

Then, in 1954 clinical trials began for Dr. Jonas Salk's vaccine against polio and within a year, his vaccine was announced safe. "I got that vaccine at school," John says. Within two years, U.S. polio cases had dropped 85-95 percent — even before a second vaccine was developed by Dr. Albert Sabin in the 1960s. "I remember how much better things got after the vaccines came out. They changed everything," John says.

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