Breaking the Chains: Breaking the Silence of Black History in San Diego – Althea Ulin

As a predominantly white city and a center of white flight, San Diego maintains a low diversity rate to this day; however, instances of tolerance are shown through events such as the erection of the “Breaking the Chains” statue on Martin Luther King Jr. Promenade. Not only does this commemorate the struggle of African Americans in the United States by addressing the bondage of slavery and Jim Crow laws, but it also celebrates the work of a prominent Black artist, Melvin (Mel) Edwards. As a fairly recent addition to the public art scene in San Diego, the city unveiled this sculpture in 1995. San Diego is a global hub and a huge American metropolitan area, yet it remains much whiter than other trade cities, and most of its diversity comes from Eastern Asian countries., This sculpture, contracted by the city of the San Diego, necessarily opens the eyes of many blissfully ignorant residents of the San Diego area.

As San Diego’s main historically cultural source, it came as no surprise that the statue resides in the Gaslamp District in Downtown; the placement of the statue continues to speak, however, of the cultural and historic divide between San Diegans with low tolerance towards celebrating ethnic art even in an area designed after New Orleans, one of the most historically diverse and multicultural cities in the country, if not the world. The Gaslamp District is an expensive, small neighborhood with high crime rates and low education standards. The Gaslamp Quarter only houses about 1,000 of San Diego’s nearly 1.5 million person population leaving most of the area’s industry to dining. By placing the sculpture in the Gaslamp District, the impact remains separated from the traditionally conservative, mono-cultural community created in from the 1960s. The 2010 Census speaks for itself when noting that 58.9% of the population is white compared to the 6.7% African American population. By putting in peace offerings like this art installation, San Diego becomes a much more inviting city to minority groups including, but not limited to, Black Americans. The piece is extremely abstract; upon first sight, the sculpture might not seem meaningful or to an unexpecting or unaware viewer, but as one gets closer, they can read the engraved words on the tablet which reads, “‘ALONG THE WAY OF LIFE SOMEONE MUST HAVE SENSE ENOUGH AND MORALITY ENOUGH TO CUT OFF THE CHAIN OF HATE. THIS CAN ONLY BE DONE BY PROJECTING THE ETHIC OF LOVE TO THE CENTER OF OUR LIVES.'” This specific quote is from Dr. King’s essay “An Experiment in Love” in which he analyzes the six pillars that uphold peaceful protest, disproves the stigmas and negative assumptions about peaceful protest, and explains how to effectively use peaceful protest for Civil Rights. This conveys a specific point to the audience about the history of civil disobedience and the place it has in the history of this country, this state, and this city. Though there is not much of a direct link between Dr. King and San Diego, his impact on Black lives (including those within San Diego) is integral to African American history and therefore deserves a place in the immortalized form of homage to the Civil Rights battle here.

This idea is right on point with Mel Edward’s journey with sculpture: addressing the struggle for Black liberation and the recognition of the progress African Americans have made in American society. Edwards was born in Houston, Texas in 1937; thus, he grew up in the segregated South and was the perfect age to be an active participant and young mind during the peak of the Civil Rights movement in the United States during the 1960s. He began his artistic career at the University of Southern California during his time as an undergraduate student in their art school, and has been a prolific, successful, highly recognized African American artist ever since. Edwards was even the first Black artist to have a solo exhibit in the Whitney Museum in New York. Most of his work is based out of his time in New York City as a sculptor, illustrator, and printmaker. “Breaking the Chains” is one of many pieces of Edwards’ public art collection that pays tribute toward Civil Rights leaders, the advancement of Civil Rights, and a commentary on the status quo of Civil Rights in modern cities including San Diego. Though there is not a lot of awareness or documentation regarding the history of Civil Rights or African American culture in the San Diego area, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. did visit San Diego (important as he is being paid tribute to with this sculpture) in 1964. As San Diego is a historically and culturally conservative city/area, and his visit was not welcomed with open arms. This statue and its placement function as sources of resistance to the consistent racism that San Diego has produced through its conservative, Republican history.

One of three commissioned public, tributary works, “Breaking the Chains” was influenced by Edwards’ largest project, Lynching Fragments, a collection of pieces ranging from the 1960s to the present of steel sculptures that acknowledges the Black struggle and visualizes the pain and history of violence against African Americans. This piece, while similar in meaning, displays a larger, less niche outlet for artwork that glorifies Black leaders and validates the Civil Rights movement in front of a population that rarely, if ever, commemorates that very integral, aspect of American history. This piece makes a cultural, political, and historical statement by telling citizens that Black voices will not go unheard and that the greatness that Black people can achieve cannot and will not be contained any longer. This controversial statement was historic by commission of the San Diego local government as the tradition of San Diego legislature has aired on the side of discrimination and isolation from any “foreign” or “unfamiliar” cultures or backgrounds. The first step to tolerance and education is awareness and simply by virtue of being a politically charged installation of public art, this piece does just that.

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