By Renée H. Shea
Titus Kaphar is a young and rising artistic star. Named a MacArthur Genius in 2018, he’s making his presence known with his provocative paintings that “revise” canonical ones as he investigates who gets to speak and who gets left out. He’s done a brief TED Talk (about 12 minutes) on the subject. His painting “The Cost of Removal,” a commentary on both the forced migration that resulted in the Trail of Tears and our contemporary immigration politics, is an engaging way into the Conversation on the Statue of Liberty in our 9th grade book Foundations of Language and Literature.
One interesting way that Foundations of Language and Literature addresses differentiation is through its use of visuals. As teacher education scholar Dr. Edwin Ellis says: “Visual prompts can enable teachers and students to see how learned information is structured as well as see how to engage in complex information processing tasks.”
Enter Titus Kaphar.
In a way, watching this TEDTalk offers two visual texts – the video of Kaphar and the Frans Hals painting he works with. To summarize: Kaphar opens by recounting a story of going to the Natural History Museum in New York City with his two young sons. The statue of Theodore Roosevelt on horseback near the entrance includes two figures, a Native American and African American walking alongside. One of his sons asks why they’re walking when the other guy is riding – and that sends Kaphar into a discussion of representation in art, what it says about who we are, and how it informs and forms our sense of our place in history and culture.
This connects nicely to the Conversation in Ch7 on Poetry, “What Does the Statue of Liberty Mean to Us Today?” It’s an especially urgent question these days when monuments of Confederate generals and Christopher Columbus are generating heated debates and often violent responses in communities from coast to coast. And, like all good questions, it asks more than it answers.
Kaphar goes on to use the 17th century painting Family Portrait by Frans Hals, asking what we see – and don’t see. So let’s start there. Even before you watch the video, you might ask students what they see in the Hals’ painting. It’s a pretty standard portrait of the time period, clearly a well-to-do family who can afford a portrait and believe they have a rightful place in the history of their time. If students are bored or go right for the technical structure, fine: the point is for them to be surprised by what Kaphar does with this work.
Kaphar cleverly paints an additional figure, a person of color, and then paints over the others with linseed oil, pointing out that the figures will not be permanently erased, just temporarily obscured as he makes his point: “this is not about eradication….What I’m trying to show you is how to shift your gaze just slightly, just momentarily, to ask yourself the questions, why do some have to walk?” He ends by emphasizing that he is not advocating erasure but amendment, i.e., exposing and acknowledging what is missing – and then creating art that is “honest, that wrestle[s] with the struggles of our past but speak[s] to the diversity and the advances of our present.” In other words, he’s asking a similar question to the one posed to students regarding the Statue of Liberty.
After students watch the video, leveled questions can engage them in analysis of Kaphar’s talk—his argument—moving from personal experience to more abstract ideas:
Level 1: Why does Kaphar start with his son’s question about Teddy Roosevelt?
Level 2: What point is he making by painting over certain parts of the Frans Hals painting?
Level 3: What is the difference between erasure vs. amendment?
These questions support students’ learning, as Dr. Ellis says, by “engag[ing] in complex information processing tasks.” If you like, you can press further with the rich rhetoric of this TEDTalk, particularly when it comes to the way Kaphar establishes his ethos: what he’s wearing, his story about his visit to the museum, his backstory about meeting his wife, etc. Even if you don’t want to go into this kind of depth, however, just discussing those three initial questions gets to the main point(s). If you have time, you might look at some of his paintings (e.g. The Cost of Removal and Beyond the Myth of Benevolence) to see how he calls attention to erasure and suggests an amended viewpoint.
These activities and discussion Could take one, possibly two class periods before you segue into Langston Hughes and the Conversation in the book. One way to transition from Kaphar to this Conversation is to ask a question on his terms: What would it mean to “shift your gaze” when you look at the Statue of Liberty? What might you see? Or what might you notice is not represented?
As you consider how to sequence your discussion of the poems in the Conversation, keep in mind the three leveled prompts that reflect differentiation (p 554):
Level 1: To what extent does the Statue of Liberty represent a belief that you hold about America?
Level 2: Is the Statue of Liberty still an appropriate symbol of America? Why or why not?
Level 3: What is the value of symbols, such as the Statue of Liberty, to a country or a group of people? How can they also be problematic?
The Hughes poem is difficult, and will likely take some time to understand the “shifting gaze” that he offers. Or you might start by letting groups of students work on other texts. In increasing order of difficulty, I suggest the Oral History Remembrances, the essay by Michael Daly, “The New Colossus,” “Black Statue of Liberty,” “Slant,” and “lady liberty.” Students might begin their explorations by asking what “amendment” Kaphar would see each of these writers adding to the symbol of the Statue of Liberty. Of course, there’s much close reading and interpretation to be done as students move toward the summative assessment of the three differentiated tasks that each prompt represents. But Kaphar’s voice offers a pathway there.