Artist's Statement

Litany at the Tomb of Frederick Douglass

Mount Hope Cemetery, Rochester, New York

November 7, 2008

This is the longitude and latitude of the impossible;
this is the epicenter of the unthinkable;
this is the crossroads of the unimaginable:
the tomb of Frederick Douglass, three days after the election.

This is a world spinning away from the gravity of centuries,
where the grave of a fugitive slave has become an altar.
This is the tomb of a man born as chattel, who taught himself to read in secret,
scraping the letters in his name with chalk on wood; now on the anvil-flat stone
a campaign button fills the O in Douglass. The button says: Obama.
This is the tomb of a man in chains, who left his fingerprints
on the slavebreaker's throat so the whip would never carve his back again;
now a labor union T-shirt drapes itself across the stone, offered up
by a nurse, a janitor, a bus driver. A sticker on the sleeve says: I Voted Today.
This is the tomb of a man who rolled his call to arms off the press,
peering through spectacles at the abolitionist headline; now a newspaper
spreads above his dates of birth and death. The headline says: Obama Wins.

This is the stillness at the heart of the storm that began in the body
of the first slave, dragged aboard the first ship to America. Yellow leaves
descend in waves, and the newspaper flutters on the tomb, like the sails
Douglass saw in the bay, like the eyes of a slave closing to watch himself
escape with the tide. Believers in spirits would see the pages trembling
on the stone and say: look how the slave boy teaches himself to read.
I say a prayer, the first in years: that here we bury what we call
the impossible, the unthinkable, the unimaginable, now and forever. Amen.

- Martín Espada


Artist's Statement

This poem was a major reaffirmation for me to portray an urgent and youthful Frederick Douglass in Ireland with the vigour and force of nature's elements. Written during the immediate celebrations of 2008, when the United States elected its first African-American President, I read it after already choosing to represent the hand and hand gesture of President Obama himself in my sculpture alongside the braced, strident stance of Demosthenes practicing oratory beside the roar of the wind and waves. More layers to my meaning are the long-coat of President Lincoln and the cape of the Irish Liberator, Daniel O'Connell, flying like the flag of liberty itself. The young Douglass is clasping a copy of his Narrative, first published in the United States and Ireland in 1845 and is based on a first edition copy presented to the President of Ireland, Mary McAleese, by Todd Allen of New Jersey. I have used Josiah Wedgwood's Staffordshire clay in my labour. My home is also Wedgwood's birthplace and my inheritance - his quest for abolition, civil equality and rights. This monument is a symphony of these inspirations. Not just a portrait of a hero but part of a progression and a movement which I present as part of the work of my most respected friend, Don Mullan, whose vision and inspiration this project is.

- Andrew Edwards