|"Mirth and Girth" by David Nelson -- the Mona Lisa of our time|
As Obama told the Chicago Reader in 2000, the reason he had returned to Chicago from Harvard Law School is that, “If you’re interested not only in politics in general, but interested in the future of the African-American community, then Chicago in many ways is the capital of the African-American community in the country. (p. 131, America's Half-Blood Prince, Steve Sailer)
“We’ve been pushed around, shoved around, beat, murdered, emasculated, destroyed,” Washington said. “There’s been an unfair distribution of all the goodies. No system works for us. We influence no institutions in this country except our own. We have no power. We have no land…
“We’ve been giving white candidates our vote for years and years, unstintingly hoping that they would include us in the process,” Washington said. “Now it’s come to the point where we say, ‘Well, it’s our turn. It’s our turn.” (p. 147, Fire on the Prairie: Chicago’s Harold Washington and the Politics of Race, by Gary Rivlin)
Thousands of people streamed into Chicago’s McCormick Inn on the evening of 22 February 1983. They filled one ballroom, then a second, and finally overflowed into the corridors. They burst into cheers and screams with every rumor of concession by the opposition candidates. “We want Harold. We want Harold,” they chanted until many of them were hoarse. Typical of the Washington campaign, the gathering was part celebration and part religious revival. There was a cash bar dispensing drinks and a jazz band playing music, but the throng joined the Reverend Jesse Jackson in prayer and sang “We Shall Overcome,” the anthem of their crusade. Even before the final results were in, the predominately black crowd, hugged, kissed, and congratulated each other. “We did it. We did it,” they shouted. “I couldn’t stay home,” one young black woman told reporters. “This is history in the making.” (p. 134, Chicago Divided: The Making of a Black Mayor, by Paul Kleppner)
Harold Washington, the subject of "Mirth and Girth" -- was he wearing bra and panties when he died?When the polls were closed and all the ballots counted, the news stunned the city. Harold Washington had won the Democratic primary! Black Chicagoans went wild. They literally danced in the streets. Together, they had done the impossible. Black people throughout the country joined them in celebration. This was a Black victory, regardless of where black lived. The African descendant population was a national population and this was a national victory. (Black Politics After the Civil Rights Movement: Activity and Beliefs in Sacramento, 1970-2000, p. 105, by David Colvin)
There was a hush in black Chicago. It was like people were dealing privately with Washington’s passing, like a death in the family. On one black radio station, the DJ said he would just play music because he didn’t fell like talking. A traffic reporter started to give a report on the rush-hour commute but interrupted herself to say it didn’t seem important at a time like this. A photograph in the Tribune showed a black cop at his guard post just outside the mayor’s outer office, wiping tears from his eye. One black radio reporter managed as best she could. She would break into tears, seek refuge, and then return to her post, like a good soldier. Other reporters, including several Washington had believed to be hopelessly biased against him, found it difficult to suppress their tears. (p 406, Rivlin)
Harold Washington, Chicago’s first black mayor, died suddenly of a heart attack in November 1987, shortly after being re-elected. He had become a revered figure to the black community of Chicago – so much so that shortly after his death a poster went on sale in which a smiling Harold Washington is shown in the company of Jesus Christ floating above the Chicago skyline; the poster is captioned “Worry Ye Not.”
David Nelson, a student at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, did not think Washington deserving of deification, and so for his entry in the school’s annual fellowship competition Nelson submitted a painting intended (he claims) to portray Washington in a more human light. The painting, entitled Mirth and Girth and based on a rumor that doctors at the hospital to which Washington had been brought when he suffered his fatal heart attack had discovered that underneath his suit he was wearing female underwear, is a full-length frontal portrait of a portly grim-faced Harold Washington clad in a white bra and G-string, garter belt, and stockings.
Nelson’s painting, together with the submissions of the other students, was placed on exhibition on May 11, 1988. The exhibition was open to students, faculty, and invited guests, but not to the public at large. The students’ works were to be judged by four experts. Mirth and Girth, however, was destined not to be judged – not in the expected fashion, at any rate. As soon as the exhibition of student work opened and visitors saw Nelson’s painting, it became the focus of outraged attention. A security guard was quickly posted in front of it to protect it from an angry crowd of students. The school began receiving enraged phone calls. School officials asked Nelson to remove the painting. He refused.
Word of the painting came to the Chicago City Council, which was in session. Alderman Bobby Rush prepared a resolution, which was signed by, among others, Aldermen Allan Streeter and Dorothy Tillman, threatening to cut off the City’s contribution to the Art Institute unless the Institute apologized for displaying Mirth and Girth. The resolution passed, together with another resolution, which requested that Art Institute to remove the painting immediately.
The aldermen whom we have named are three of the defendants in this suit, and are the appellants in this appeal. But they were not the first aldermen to arrive at the scene. Aldermen Henry and Jones arrived first. Henry brandished a gun, and Jones removed the painting from the wall and placed it on the floor, facing the wall. They left, and a student rehung the painting.Then the defendants arrived. They took the painting down and tried to carry it out of the school, but were stopped by a school official, then diverted (carrying the painting) to the office of the president of the School of the Art Institute, Anthony Jones. When the painting arrived in Jones’s office, it had a one-foot gash, but it is not known precisely when, or by whom, the gash had been inflicted. The aldermen told Jones that they were there to carry out the City Council’s resolution to remove the painting from the Art Institute. The aldermen wrapped the painting in brown paper to prevent anyone from seeing it. According to one witness, Alderman Tillman threatened to burn the painting right there in President Jones’s office but was dissuaded by a police lieutenant whom was present, Raymond Patterson.A police sergeant, accompanied by the three defendant aldermen, carried the wrapped painting to a police car. The scene was televised, and broadcast widely, confirming, if confirmation was needed, that Chicago had replaced Boston as the censorship capital of the United States.
Mirth and Girth was kept in custody until the evening of the following day, when it was released to David Nelson. The painting has not been repaired, exhibited, or sold. (Law, Ethics, and the Visual Arts, p. 608-609, By John Henry Merryman, Albert Edward Elsen)
Famed newspaper columnist Mike Royko had this hilarious take on the Mirth and Girth incident [Chicago Alderman’s Brain May Be a Museum Piece, The Dispatch, by Mike Royko]:
In Chicago, there is alderman named Ernie Jones. He made news recently by saying that female cops take too many days off because of their “minister periods.”
Now Jones has turned his pea-sized intellect to other pursuits – art criticism and constitutional law.
Jones was one of the black Chicago aldermen who took it upon themselves to yank a painting out of the School of the Art Institute because it offended them.
By now, most Chicagoans know the story. A student-artist thought it clever to draw the late Mayor Harold Washington in women’s undergarments.
Someone called a black alderman, who spread the word among his colleagues and everybody went berserk. Several rushed to the Art Institute – probably for the first time – to seize the painting.
But fearing that students might splatter them with paint, they backed down and had the police confiscate the painting for them.
The police justified the seizure by saying that a painting of the late mayor in female undies might incite black citizens to riot.
Some hilarious quotes from the Wikipedia page on the Mirth and Girth include these examples of extreme black solidarity in the face of one their idols being defaced. Organized Blackness can’t stand for jokes at their expense:
In a New York Times article published on May 13, 1988, Alderman Streeter reiterated his stance regarding the removal of the painting, saying that he would have "gone to jail to get that painting down", calling it "an insult to a great man and an affront to blacks".
On May 16, 1988, Streeter appeared on the local public television station news program Chicago Tonight. He reinforced that Nelson had abdicated his "responsibility to his constituency" to "do what is right". In the segment, he reaffirmed that he believed the aldermen had "a law, the law of common sense, the law of morality, the law of decency [that] transcends the First Amendment"
Operation PUSH, an organization that pursues social justice and civil rights, threatened to impose "sanctions" on the Art Institute unless the Art Institute acted to prevent offensive portraits from being shown by students or contributing artists in the future. Separately, the Illinois Alliance of Black Student Organizations called for racial parity with regards to faculty and student enrollment within the school.
On February 12, 1994, during a rally to raise money for the defendants' mounting legal bills, Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan supported the three aldermen's right to seize the painting, calling it "an act of righteous indignation". Farrakhan referred to Washington as "a father figure for black people", and described the painting and subsequent lawsuit "a total disrespect for our feelings and our community"