Murals are fragile things. They bring vibrant color and life to what was once dead spaces. As the years and the weather pounds on them, their colors begin to fade. Or a new building will cover the damage and the narratives of the past. I’ve been noting the visual music of U Street and Shaw for the Ellington, Shaw & U walking tour focusing on Washington, DC’s jazz heritage. Most of the murals along these blocks are homages to persons who are no longer in our physical lives: Duke Ellington, Marvin Gaye, Chuck Brown, Miles Davis, Shirley Horne.
Mural survival is always precarious. G. Byron Peck’s iconic mural of Duke Ellington on the side of the True Reformer Building has been removed. The mural was one of the first signs of the U Street transformation. The mural was removed before. It was raised and placed on the side of the True Reformer Building. A new business building at the U Street Metro stop was built over the previous location. The current removal of the Ellington mural is not for relocation or even restoration but for a complete do-over because repairs to the weather damaged panels are impossible to make. A grant from the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities will ensure its return.
Not far away the Marvin Gaye mural (2014) on the side of a liquor store at 7th and S, NW was a rebirth of an earlier Marvin Gaye mural by the same artist, Aniekan Udofia, on the side of a house across the street. The previous mural was covered by a new building. Aniekan knew it would be a temporary situation. He intended to paint a “better mural” once a space became available. I admired his pluck and a kind of “Buddhist” perspective of impermanence.
Aniekan is also responsible for a Duke Ellington mural at the location of the musician’s birth in Foggy Bottom, and the Chuck Brown mural (2010) on the side of Ben’s Chili Bowl on U Street. Brown shares the wall with living legends including Donnie Simpson (WPGC DJ), President Barack Obama, and Bill Cosby, long-time family friend to Ben (deceased) and Virginia Ali who opened the Chili Bowl in 1958. In November 2014, a Washington Post column by Clinton Yates suggested that Cosby’s image come down from the wall as sexual assault accusations piled up against the comedian/producer/actor. Should Cosby share the wall with the first Black POTUS? No action has been taken on the mural to date. A new Ben’s Chili Bowl opens today (July 8). The Washington Post is still on Cosby watch. Murals may not last for ever, but friendship is another matter altogether.
A few blocks down artist Alonso Tamayo‘s Miles Davis stares at us from the parking lot for Bohemian Caverns. Once a nightclub for swing and jazzy takes on the American song book, the club has modified its musical playlist to preserve and feature straight ahead jazz classics. Miles was not alone on the wall. Gazing from her left was the image of Shirley Horn of Washington, DC. Her music touched Davis and he shined a light on her. But Horn was content to have a DC life with jazz rather than take a one-way A train from Union Station to NYC. She brought the light back to her hometown in her final years. Unfortunately, it could not save her image on the wall. Natural light, weather, and repairs to the wall forced Shirley to be covered in black. Is the wall in mourning? This brings us to the question – How many murals feature women? The late Latin Jazz pianist/arranger Maria Rodriguez (aka Jean Butler) gets a nod on the side of the Latin American Bilingual Public Charter School on Military Road in DC by the artist Cecilia Lueza.
How many murals pay homage to the living? One mural that pays homage to a living person, though the affiliated institution may consider him dead– E. Ethelbert Miller. E. Ethelbert Miller’s face is included in a writers mural inside the Howard University book store. The mural was painted by Alexis Peskine, a native of Paris who graduated from Howard Summa Cum Laude with Bachelor of Fine Arts. The project was commissioned in 2003. Ethelbert and Toni Morrison are the only two living persons sharing space with dead poets, writers/intellectuals – Langston Hughes, Maya Angelou, James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison, Zora Neale Hurston. In April of this year Eugene (E.) Ethelbert Miller was deleted from the Howard University system as director of the university’s Afro-American Resource Center along with 84 other persons in a layoff. But Ethelbert remains…on the HU bookstore mural, at least for now.
Inside the HU bookstore I finally find the “Poetry ” section. Black women poets dominate the inventory — Sonia Sanchez, Nikki Giovanni, Maya Angelou, a volume by singer/actor Jill Scott – followed by Shakespeare, e.e. Cummings, and other “dead white men.” Tony Medina’s Bum Rush the Page a Def Poetry Jam Anthology, and an African American poet from Chicago (can’t remember his name) represent. No poetry by E. Ethelbert Miller. I browse the other stacks noticing none of Miller’s anthologies, or his two memoirs (Fathering Words and The 5th Inning) were on the shelves. Even a search on the website produced this result….
Makes you wonder how long the mural will last in a bookstore where neither Ethelbert or Langston Hughes can be found on the poetry shelf?
Prior to April students seeking knowledge could associate the windows below the bell tower of Howard University’s Founders Library as the mountain their inner Moses had to climb seeking knowledge and guidance in navigating their identities on a HBCU campus. Undergrads are fragile people especially during the first two years.
The HU bookstore is not the only location that pays visual homage to the living writer. The mural created by Busboys and Poets owner Andy Shallal inside its first location on 14th street includes an image of Miller in the upper left hand portion of the wall. Not to get a big head on his own, Andy commissioned artist Pete Petrine to create a big head Ethelbert drawing for the launch of Busboys and Poets’ first publishing venture in 2012 with PM Press — Ethelbert’s second memoir The 5th Inning. The bookcover is designed by Andy Shallal. The big head hangs inside the Busboys and Poets 5th & K location.
Could it be that Ethelbert’s expulsion from the tower is like the release of the caged bird. Bird flies over the city and claims a perch on a circular metal bench at the Dupont Circle Metro at Q where Ethelbert’s poem “We Embrace” is etched in the granite. Fly to another poem on the wall of La Casa Shelter on Irving Street, near 14th. A leaf sculpture by Lisa Scheer at the Georgia Avenue-Petworth Metro station recites an E-poem: every leaf surrenders to air, we dance, we flutter, we touch the earth. And a mural on the side of a Children’s Medical Care Center on 14th near Colorado is a painted quilt of images with another poem by E. Ethelbert Miller.
Maybe the words will speak for a thousand falling bricks and fading images.