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Sam Durant’s ‘The Meeting House’ reveals truths about race and slavery

History gets rewritten at Concord art installation

Celina Colby
Celina Colby
Celina Colby is an arts and travel reporter with a fondness for Russian novels.... VIEW BIO

Boston has enjoyed a long and formative role in American history, typically portrayed as a bastion of abolitionism and liberal thought. Among its time-worn tropes: Slavery was something that happened in the South, while we had William Lloyd Garrison, Robert Gould Shaw and Underground Railroad stops at every block. Unfortunately, the history books lied to us. Sam Durant’s piece “The Meeting House,” in Concord, Massachusetts, reveals some truth behind the myth, and seeks to spark discussion of race and slavery in New England along the way.

“The Meeting House” is a special structure built on the grounds of The Old Manse, a National Historic Landmark where transcendentalists such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Nathaniel Hawthorne lived and worked. We often hear these great men touted as forward-thinking, but Durant shows there’s much more to the narrative than Walden Pond. He says, “It’s the contradictions that are interesting to me. The land of liberty was a land that held humans in bondage.”

Equally, if not more important than the pavilion Durant built, are the activities happening inside it. Together with The Trustees of Reservations, Durant assembled a program of offerings designed to facilitate dialogue about the history of the local and surrounding area. Pedro Alonzo, the Trustees Art and Landscape Curator, says, “Concord has an important literary history. But it has largely left out African Americans.”

The first of the programs, called lyceums in reference to Concord’s educational past, addressed the role of food in segregation. “The Picnic” hosted guests for an afternoon of food and discourse. When African Americans were first emancipated, the residents of Concord relegated them to Walden Pond, where the land was too infertile to grow food. This is just one example of how food, and who has access to it, can serve as a tool of oppression.

At each of the four lyceums, Durant has invited prominent artists and educators of the African American community to speak. This not only works to correct the racial imbalance of historical figures featured in the area, but also helps promote thought-provoking reflection and discussion. Durant says, “Contemporary African leaders can help us envision a more racially equal future.”

“Lyceum III: A New Framework for Dialogue” on October 15, will feature Adam Foss, prosecutor and juvenile justice reformer, and enable visitors to link historical struggle to contemporary issues of mass incarceration and the school-to-prison pipeline.

Lyceum IV: New England Town Meeting” on October 16, will allow visitors to contribute their own thoughts via a group discussion about what they have experienced in “The Meeting House.”

In many ways, the dialogues and awareness that emerge from the exhibit are as much a work of art as the structure surrounding it. Durant hopes that visitors, particularly white visitors, walk away with a better understanding of the area’s involvement in slavery. As a white man, he feels hearing from the African American community and understanding the issues is the first step toward solidarity. “We need to learn from the people we’ve been oppressing.”