Assessing Teddy

 

The American Museum of Natural History in Manhattan has asked New York City to remove James Earle Fraser’s 1939 bronze of President Theodore Roosevelt from in front of the museum on Central Park West, where Roosevelt sits astride a horse, flanked by an African-American and a Native American on foot. In making the request of the city, because the statue is on city land, Futter says she offers no judgment of Roosevelt but rather of the racially hierarchical composition of the work.

The man known as Teddy Roosevelt or T.R. (1858-1919) was a complex individual who did much to move America forward – championing a “square deal” for the workingman over the robber barons at home while advancing American interests overseas – while embracing a paternalistic imperialism out of sync with America today. Even his conservation streak is not without controversy. Roosevelt is largely responsible for our system of national parks but he was also a big game hunter. How to reconcile the two? You can’t. He was and remains a product of his time.

In writing the following poem about the statue, WAG alumni Frank Pagani notes what Percy Bysshe Shelley does of Egypt’s Ramesses the Great in his poem “Ozymandias”:  What is powerful to one generation, is often abandoned by another.

Here, then, is Frank Pagani’s “Theodore”:

He doesn’t look so tough anymore

mounted up there amid the pigeons and grime

looking ready to charge up

San Juan Hill again

while an American Indian

and African man

stand by

impassive

they “know their place”

beside” the great White Man”

 

It’s been some time

since children of any race

have paid him any mind

despite the etchings

marking his claim to fame

as president and governor

nor some of the other accolades

associated with his name—

Wielder of the Big Stick,

Big Game Hunter,

Father of the Teddy Bear!

 

Instead, day after day,

they hop, skip, run,

shouting, laughing

past his grave gaze

in anticipation

of the thrill

and awe

that await

them in the Hall of Dinosaurs.

 

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