Directly under the teller counter at the Rhinebeck Post office, an enslaved Black man is depicted harvesting corn. His tattered shorts are gathered around his thin body and he stoops so low to the ground that he is almost prostate. One can count his ribs, and most disturbingly, his face seems to be missing. Though it is possible that the artist meant for it to be turned away or obscured by the deep harvest, there is a phantom space where one expects to see a face and does not. Over and beside him, white men stand in the throes of diligence, bodies healthy and strong, hair windswept and abundant. They stand solidly and confidently, on the land that is now theirs.
This scene is a depiction of human bondage during a time when white masters nourished themselves on the local harvest and worked Black people like animals upon whose backs and shoulders the local economy flourished. Perhaps the subjugated Black man in the center is the most honest depiction of that time for which we could ask. Perhaps, to some, the mural stands as a reminder of this brutal history. The problem is that most people who enter the post office feel the warmth and jubilance of the mural without even seeing the enslaved figures, and certainly without reflection upon the white transgression that was American slavery. The other problem is that the mural goes as far as to condone slavery as a necessary practice for the establishment of Hudson Valley society, without mention of the inhumanity and barbarism of it.
The mural consists of twelve scenes painted in 1940 by Olin Dows with sponsorship from Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Together they conferenced on what should be depicted in the panoramic scene. The overall feeling of the scenes is conveyed by white figures who proudly go about the chores of the day. In one, men in billowing white shirts harvest corn into handwoven baskets. One kneels to embrace a woman, holding an ear of corn to her lips. In another scene, a child plays with a puppy as his father plows the fields. The babies are plump with rosy cheeks. The women are dressed in layers of patterned fabric. The men stand tall with muscular backs and thighs. The mighty Hudson River is seen in the background, an artery for the goods and commerce that caused our riverside paradise to flourish. White men meet with Indigenous people and seem to broker deals with them peacefully beside a fire. The colors and movement of the entire piece suggest the decadence of our most indulgent colonial daydreams. The mural depicts a utopia—a white utopia.
For those who notice the enslaved subjects, or see themselves and their own history in their subordinated forms, a trip to the post office rings with the deeper, darker truth of American history and our current culture. That truth is that we are willing to have elevated above us, and circling around us as a centerpiece in our town, a depiction of our most un-Christian transgression. We are able to brush away the message of the mural, calling it a reminder of our history, when it clearly sends a message of white dominance over Black people during a time when humanity was stripped from both enslaved man and master. The mural does not offer an honest interpretation of slavery; it sends a message that the time when white people owned Black people was a prosperous and necessary time.
A look at perhaps the most offensive scene brings this more into focus. Here we see a celebration of the Hudson River. It sparkles blue and buoys crisp clipper ships. A disproportionately large white man is painted in the foreground. He assumes a stance of power and might. His feet are plantly proudly amid a cornucopia of local fare. In the background, three enslaved Black men load cargo onto a docked ship. They are bent under the weight of the loads they carry, but also under the watchful gaze of the white men who oversee their labor. The enslaved men are muscular and long-limbed, but bent in docile servitude. In this image, there is no sympathy for the enslaved, nor acknowledgement that the ownership of another human being is immoral. The men are depicted as low-maintenance beasts of burden, exploited by men enterprising enough to do so.
The post office mural is entrenched in local history and representative of things we cherish as residents of the Hudson Valley. It is important to have such celebrations of our culture in public buildings. The idea is to be imbued with a sense of place while going about your daily routine, but we are entering a new period of our history as Americans, where we seek to make Black people feel safer, and therefore, we must be critical of our monuments and icons. The white viewer of the piece, who does not notice the enslaved characters, loses nothing as he or she mails letters in this quaint and cherished space. In fact, he or she may be imbued with that strong sense of place.
For those who do notice, either because they share the skin color of the enslaved man above the teller window, or because they, as white members of the community, understand that their morality is entwined with that of the prostrate Black man, this mural is deeply offensive.
Recently, I have seen wonderful things happening on the streets of Rhinebeck where so many Black people have told me that they don’t feel comfortable walking, shopping, or dining. I saw students from Rhinebeck High School, self-organized, writing the names of victims of police brutality down the sidewalk. I saw more than a hundred people lined up down Route 9 holding posters where they had carefully detailed the stories of those lives. I heard the honks of everyone who drove through town and supported those people. I saw their lips move as they read names and biographical details of those victims. It is the right time to dig more deeply into the experience of Black people in Rhinebeck and make changes that create a more inclusive community. The mural has been in the post office for 80 years. It is time to make the systemic changes in our town that need to be made in the country as a whole.
As a teenager growing up in Rhinebeck, a friend showed me a secret space in his Livingston Street basement where it is said enslaved people were hidden as they used the Underground Railway to make their way to freedom. Seeing this tiny space, and imagining the people who hid there, lent the house the brave aura of a movement where people came together to do what was morally right. The knowledge of that space made me feel proud to be part of this town. That is what needs to be commemorated in our public spaces. A movement that does not erase the history of slavery, but remains on the correct side of that history, celebrating the souls who, even then, had the courage to change and shape our American destiny. We now need to be the courageous souls who replace the mural with a depiction of the Underground Railroad.
The mother of that friend on Livingston Street gave me a copy of James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, which provided me with my first insight into what it could feel like to be American in a Black body. That there was a reality so different from mine. This morning I reread a letter Baldwin wrote to his nephew about being born into a racist society. Addressing his nephew he writes, “You were born into a society which spelled out with brutal clarity and in as many ways as possible that you were a worthless human being. You were not expected to aspire to excellence. You were expected to make peace with mediocrity.” Standing before that faceless Black figure above the teller counter, who is given no dignity or culture, is one of the ways Baldwin references in which Black people are made to feel worthless. It is not a reminder of the evils of slavery as the white men, who are given culture and dignity, stand healthily above him, and over him, as the police did above George Floyd. And it is no longer acceptable, as a white member of this community, to not notice this.
Laura Lennox Kufner grew up in the Hudson Valley and is currently an English teacher for the Red Hook School District. She and her husband live in Rhinebeck with their daughter and have another baby on the way.
The River is a nonpartisan news organization, and the opinions of columnists and editorial writers do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the newsroom.