Ellen Greenblatt: An African Gentleman

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The Black Lives Matter movement has forced everyone to reexamine the role race plays in almost every aspect of American life. For Ellen Greenblatt, that means a personally prized piece of African art.

I’ve started looking with new eyes at the art I have brought back from Africa. In particular, I am troubled about what to do with a one-of-a-kind piece I have always called, since I bought it at a roadside stand in Tanzania, an African gentleman. The gentleman, carved from a single piece of wood, dates, according to my research, from about 1900, when Germany had colonized what they called German East Africa. The handsome, beautifully carved gentleman whose brightly colored paint has chipped off or faded in parts, is dressed in colonial uniform down to precisely rendered boots. He stands with perfect posture at about 18 elegant inches tall.

But now I, a white person, am not sure how to look at this piece of African-made art that seems to glorify a colonial past that used Africans to achieve domination and gain profit. Am I honoring the African artist who made the piece and represented his subject with such dignity? Or am I perpetuating stereotypes by showing a piece that reminds us of a shameful past?

I have begun soliciting the views of friends who come for socially distant visits. Though opinions vary widely, everyone agrees that we cannot simply look at this art as we might have in the past. Our discussions evoke discomfort as they reveal the implied and often unconscious bias we all carry.

We need to keep talking, but we sometimes get stuck. If I were in my high school classroom teaching teenagers, I might suggest that students take some time to write what they are thinking, then share their thoughts in pairs or larger groups before coming back to the whole class discussion. But no one person is moderating the discussion that is raging in my head and in the heads and hearts of so many people.


All I know is that I, and we, have a lot to learn.

With a Perspective, I’m Ellen Greenblatt.

Ellen Greenblatt is a Bay Area educator and writing coach.