The Nashville Scene is featuring three paintings of George Floyd. They’re really extraordinary, at least in pictures, and I wonder how long they’ll be up. Hopefully they’ll be around long enough for me to see them in person. I’m not leaving the house much these days, and even when I do it’s only for short trips for necessities, and while I do think art, especially seeing art in person, is a necessity, it’s not one I can justify right now.
That got me thinking about George Floyd and how, as far as I know, he never came to Nashville. He did spend much of his life in the south—he was born in North Carolina, and lived in Texas before moving to Minneapolis in 2014. And his murder, as we know, sparked outrage around the world, and has intensified discussions of race and history in the United States. Some say “prompted” but, really, race has been an issue here even before the United States was a country.
The public portraits, painted by local artists Wayne Brezinka (whose painting is available as a free download), Paul Collins, and Ashley Doggett, are a visual reminder of what will hopefully be a continuing conversation. George Floyd didn’t ask to be a martyr, and he is, unfortunately, one of far too many who deserve to be remembered. Many of their names are included in Wayne Brezinka’s portrait.
I thought too about the civil rights leader John Lewis, whose recent passing comes at such a difficult time. Lewis’s own life is another reminder of just how long and difficult that conversation has been. He lived in Nashville and was a student and activist here before he’d lead the famous march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Alabama on March 7th, 1965, which we now know as Bloody Sunday. Lewis was attacked for asking for the right to vote, a right that’s supposed to be granted freely to every citizen.
The bridge Lewis crossed, which was built in 1940, is named for a Confederate brigadier general and Ku Klux Klan leader. There have been calls to rename the bridge for years, and it would be more than fitting to rename it after Congressman Lewis who not only crossed it but worked so hard to build metaphorical bridges between people throughout his lifetime.
The bridge’s current namesake is part of a very powerful recent essay by another Nashville native, Caroline Randall Williams. You Want a Confederate Monument? My Body Is A Confederate Monument is a powerful statement about history and its influence on the present. Despite claims to the contrary changing the name of a bridge, or a military base, won’t erase the past. We can’t change the past either. We can, however, change how we let the past inform the present.
Here’s Williams reading her essay.