This essay was completed to fulfill requirements for HSAR 460 with Dr. Margaret Spillane. Students were invited to choose a work of public art from anywhere in the world, past or present, and write about the story the work aims to tell, the materials from which the object was made, the response it aspires to provoke, and its relationship to the community.
Each Saturday, I take the same route from New Haven to Woodbridge to teach a piano lesson. I turn right onto Prospect Street, left down Hillside Place, and no matter what I do, I always seem to hit that red light at the intersection of Dixwell and Orchard. Usually, there is little else to do besides glance around with an air of boredom and impatience. But this is not your typical traffic juncture, for 738 Orchard St. is home to an iconic mural of Maya Angelou. What began as a mild inconvenience has become a sobering ritual, woven into the fabric of my weekly routine.
There is so much that remains unknown to me about this work and this neighborhood. As a student, I am keenly aware of my place as a guest among members of the greater New Haven community. As a temporary resident of East Rock, I am also cognizant of my proximity to St. Ronan’s St., one of the most affluent areas in the city on one side of the hill, and its impoverished counterpart, Newhallville, down the other. While these neighborhoods have surely changed overtime, I visit them with the eyes of a newcomer—often peering through lenses of privilege and (frankly) ignorance.
This perhaps explains why I didn’t recognize the face of Maya Angelou at first. It is due in part to the way the mural looks today. A middle-aged African-American woman, rendered in black and white spray paint, stares directly at me with an enigmatic expression. Whether intended or accidental, the horizontal line of brick mortar underneath the painted eyes gives the impression of tears about to fall. Her chin perches thoughtfully on her right hand—a hand that wrote, “A bird doesn’t sing because it has an answer, it sings because it has a song.” A fresh coat of grey paint—probably the result of recent market renovations or transferred ownership—cuts in around the edges of her face, hair, and hand, threatening to absorb her completely. She might not be here tomorrow; all it would take is another coat.
Around my fifth drive past the mural, my curiosity is piqued: I want to know how the work came to be and—more importantly—how it has transformed. An article from the New Haven Register documenting the origin story alters my understanding and renews the site’s significance. In 2013, local New Haven artist Dooley-O obtained permission to paint the side of this market wall from the neighborhood grocery clerk, Abdul Rawas. Tragically, one week later Rawas was killed on site during an armed robbery. For Dooley-O, the incident imbued the wall with immediate significance, but he held off creating a work in honor of Rawas for over a year. It wasn’t until 2014, following the death of Maya Angelou, that he collaborated with fellow artist Alberto Colon to create an inspirational, conversational piece of public art that celebrated both the life of a legendary poet and commemorated the death of a friend. He told a reporter, “After Abdul […] passed away due to the robbery, I wanted to do something to honor him. It was just the right time to do something for him and Angelou.”
Dooley-O’s rendering of Colon’s illustration of Angelou communicates an entirely different message from that which remains on the market wall today. A signature and dates on the right-hand corner of her face ensure that she is known and named. Angelou’s inspiring words are captured above in a dynamic font, rendered in cheerful green and purple paint: “We may encounter many defeats, but we must not be defeated,” and, “When you know better, you do better.” Two bold graffiti signatures flank her face, and I get woozy trying to make out the vertiginous font. The vibrant hues of these chaotic, nearly illegible words transform my original interpretation of her expression. Colon made some artistic variations to the photograph upon which he bases his own illustration: a softer, tight-lipped smile, a more furrowed brow, and a subdued color palette. In 2014, with the presence of these other elements contextualizing her visage, Maya looks more like herself—calm, resolute, determined.
After tracing the history of this work and steadily awakening to the experience of Black residents of New Haven, I find myself wishing the mural was still in its original state. For me, its first iteration represents the struggles, hopes, ambitions, capacity, and resilience of African-American people in this neighborhood—something that, as much as I wish I did, I don’t often think about when I’m waiting at red lights.
It is now 2020. The graffiti signatures are gone; the quotes, erased; her name, removed. Without the original identifying inscription and the encroaching grey exterior paint, Angelou’s significance as a world-renowned writer and public icon has been reduced to an anonymous face—troubled, sad, resigned. This does not look like the Maya Angelou who let the caged bird sing. As she vanishes from her place on the wall, so do the site’s memories and meaning.
As I reflect on Dooley-O’s and the community’s efforts to come together during this time of mourning and memorializing, I consider how efforts to unite and create in the wake of tragedy usually take place in those shocking, raw, and horrific moments of initial aftermath. From what I understand, Dooley-O envisioned adding the faces of other important community icons as time went on, making it a living public art installation. Now, only Maya’s ambivalent face remains.
What does the state of this public art say about our collective amnesia and the fickleness of social memory? Similar to Dooley-O and Colon in 2014, we might also wish to do something good, enduring, even beautiful to honor recent victims of police brutality and systemic racism. Our attempts to draw upon art’s power to immortalize and lend permanence to the things we hold most dear, however, are in vain if such works are covered up in a few short years. I can’t help but reflect on the senseless deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, and Breonna Taylor as I meet Angelou’s gaze. Will they deteriorate from the walls of our memory too?
And the light turns green.