The Very Next Day!
The very next day after our last newsletter went out (in which I talked about the decapitated monument atop Mt. Tabor) I walked up Mt. Tabor again, and instead of a vacant pedestal, I beheld this:
Whoever the “guerilla artist” is that placed this bust and plaque did it in the wee hours of the night or the very early hours of the morning. No signature was left. No one has claimed credit for this new “installation.”
And so the statue of Harvey W. Scott, editor and publisher, “molder of opinion,” women’s suffrage opponent and slayer of Indians, has been replaced with a monument to York, a black slave who was a critical member of the Lewis and Clark expedition – hunting for food, negotiating trade with Native Americans, administering medical care when needed, and even rescuing other expedition members who were caught in a flash flood.
The plaque on the monument states that York was “the first African American to cross North America and reach the Pacific Coast.”
At the end of the expedition, York asked William Clark to set him free. Clark refused.
Reports indicate that Clark treated York “brutally” in the years that followed though he did finally release him a decade later.
Portland Officials Respond
As the New York Times reported last Sunday, the York monument was warmly received by relevant city officials. The director of Portland’s parks bureau, Adena Long, called it “a pleasant surprise.” She added, “We’re hopeful the artists will make themselves known so we can have a conversation, but it will stay.”
Portland’s commissioner of Bureau of Planning and Sustainability, Carmen Rubio, went even further, calling the new monument “an important piece” and “a much-needed reminder to city leaders to hasten our work of rooting out white supremacy in our institutions.”
Have I mentioned lately that I love my city?
Say His Name
Many people I’ve spoken to were already familiar with the story of York. I was not. But I’ve thought about him a lot this past week. “Visited” him too, multiple times.
Sometimes I get depressed, whatever that means. They say it means different things for different people. For me, when it gets really bad, I’m not sure why I want to live.
York knew why he wanted to live. He asked to be set free so that he could travel. And so he could find some of his family members. He wanted life, passionately. He was energetic, keen of mind.
I’ve got chains in my head when I feel like I can’t move. But York’s chains were physical. Though he was sharp, savvy, alert, and resourceful, it didn’t help him because he was a slave, and William Clark, the eminently famous explorer – the despicable freaking bastard! – robbed York of his precious life.
What a thing, to take someone’s life like that, to use them up. What a hideous crime. After all, this one human life is all we know we have — cosmic intimations, spiritual beliefs and epiphanies notwithstanding. This is IT.
York knew what he had to live for. I’m sure he didn’t ruminate about it.
The record is sketchy about what became of York once Clark belatedly “gave” him his rightful freedom. So I don’t know York’s whole story (and neither does anyone else). Was his spirit broken by years of injustice and abuse? Or was he magnificently able to embrace his freedom wholeheartedly, such as it was, once it was his?
Every time I walk to the top of the mountain now, I’ll think of York, and I’ll feel some of the pain of his story, his stolen life, his powerful spirit.
And other people will too – countless others over the years to come.
I don’t know what pondering the pain of York’s story “does” to me exactly or to anyone else, but I know we need to ponder and feel it. I am certain it’s necessary that it claim some rightful territory in our brains and hearts. And it must be a step in the right direction that we say York’s name more often now. (I never said it before at all.)
Just like more recent victims of racist violence and injustice in our country –Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Trayvon Martin, and so many others – I get it in a whole different way now, why it’s important we say their names.
And his name.