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GOLIS: Race and the story of America

  • (Winslow Homer's "Prisoners From the Front.")

NEW YORK

In Winslow Homer's iconic painting “Prisoners From the Front,” three Confederate prisoners and a Union officer confront each other against the backdrop of a Civil War battlefield. The Southern soldiers may be prisoners, but there is no sign of defeat or surrender in their manner.

Here's Eleanor Jones Harvey, curator of a new show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art: “The standoff epitomizes the lingering hostility and bitterness felt on the part of the Confederates, and by extension the Northerners' cluelessness as to the depth of that animosity.”

On the Fourth of July, we went to the Met to see the surprising and thought-provoking, new collection, “The Civil War and American Art.”

As Americans celebrated their independence and marked the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg in the same week, it felt like the right time to learn more about our collective history and to reflect on what it means for the future.

We live in a time in which some in public life want to pretend that race discrimination is no longer the government's concern.

But reflecting on these images from the war to end slavery, I kept thinking about all the ways that race and the politics of race continue to cast a long shadow over the American story.

Maybe it was because our visit came nine days after a bare majority on the United States Supreme Court decided to gut the Voting Rights Act.

This new collection of art and a companion exhibition of Civil War photographs tell the story of the Civil War in three parts:

There was the cruelty and inhumanity of slavery and the grim expectation that a civil war could not be avoided.

There was the war and its terrible carnage (750,000 people died).

Finally, there was the devastation visited on the economy of the Southern states and the bitterness that ensued.

In the catalog published with the new exhibitions, Harvey describes Southern resentments: “Left to pick up the pieces and start anew, many in the South descended into bitter recriminations ... and they conjured gallant fantasies of the Lost Cause.”

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