Chiseled in Stone
I lived in the Deep South in the early 1980s and the stone water fountains in our town park still had “White Only” chiseled into them. No one paid much notice, except to point out how slowly some things change.
At least, that’s what I thought. I’d take visitors out to show them those fountains and the Confederate war monument on the town square — an obelisk with a hand on top pointing triumphantly towards the heavens. I grew up during desegregation and was acutely aware of the racist speech and attitudes of some of my friends, but my parents maintained a realm of liberality and acceptance. Still, it never occurred to me how the local “non-white” population might feel about these artifacts.
From what we’ve witnessed in recent weeks, it’s likely that they were not amused.
When I moved my young family to New Hampshire in 1993, the sudden lack of “diversity” was apparent, but one of the first people I befriended as the new editor of this magazine was a Black man named Mel Bolden. Bolden was a 20th-century illustrator of substantial fame for his work on magazine and book covers as well as commemorative art. He was commissioned to paint a portrait of Christa McAuliffe that now hangs at the National Air and Space Museum. In his heyday, critics compared Bolden’s renderings of life in the 1950s to Norman Rockwell. His original paintings are expensive collector’s items. He died just as the century was turning, but while looking him up to mention him in this essay, I realized that the great Mel Bolden does not even have a Wikipedia page.
As we were preparing this issue, I received a letter to the editor asking about the lack of Black-owned businesses mentioned in our pages and challenging us to do better. The author, Clyde Bullen, owns a cupcake business in Exeter and, as I wrote my response, I realized I was dismissing what he said. The short supply of Black people in New Hampshire is legendary, what am I supposed to do about that? I mentioned the fact that we make efforts to include diversity in our pages (we do) and that we had featured two African Americans on our cover recently (we had, last December and January), but it rang a bit hollow as I wrote it.
Had I discovered a blind spot in my field of vision that had been there so long I’d just grown used to it? Glancing through our list of things chosen as Best of NH in this issue, the limited cultural diversity of the state is not exactly highlighted. Is this for lack of trying or is it something larger?
Our sister publication, the NH Business Review, was working on a list of Black-owned businesses in the state and had acquired one for New England as a starting point. The New Hampshire delegation was pretty slim, I noticed, but when I checked, I saw that Clyde’s Cupcakes of Exeter was not even on the list.
How could Mel Bolden, a brilliant artist, political organizer, Democratic Party chairman for New Hampshire’s Merrimack County (the only Black Democratic county chairman in the country at the time), who once designed a Christmas card for President Jimmy Carter, go unmentioned in the biggest encyclopedia ever compiled?
How could I, the child of open-minded parents, have been so blind to the offense that might be felt by Black families to the words “White Only” etched in stone?
I don’t really have answers for these questions, but how often have I stopped to ask them of myself, or others? The worldwide response to the killing of George Floyd in Minnesota suggests that it’s time to seek some answers.
There’s only so much that one lifestyle publication in one of the country’s whitest states can do, but as a keeper and teller of this state’s stories, I can at least promise to try to do better. Feel free to hold me to it, Clyde.