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During a recent visit to the Cincinnati Art Museum, a portrait by the world-renowned artist Kehinde Wiley captivated me. In his piece, “Portrait of Andries Stilte II,” Wiley depicted a young Black man in an oversized white t-shirt and baggy jeans, a method of dress I regularly saw in my own inner-city neighborhood. However, it was Wiley’s depiction of this young man’s posture and not his dress that arrested me. Wiley depicted this man in a powerful pose that evoked the majesty and regality of the European monarchs I studied years ago as a high school student in Advanced Placement Art History.

I realized Wiley’s work served as one of the few times I have observed a portrait of a young Black man portrayed in such a dignified way. My exposure to Eurocentric art served as a schoolmaster, teaching me that dignity, honor and respect belonged to people who did not look like me and my peers.

Fortunately, the resistance to these propaganda pieces has become more pronounced in recent years. As an elder millennial and civil rights lawyer, I inhabit a world that was unimaginable in my childhood. Across the country, classrooms, libraries and bookstores are increasingly showcasing the beauty of communities that were shrouded for far too long. Curriculum and literature depicting the vibrant beauty of Black queer history are finally allowed space on educational canvases that have historically whitewashed away their presence and their contributions to American culture.

Unfortunately, in reaction to the well-deserved acclaim given to the display of these previously bleached color palettes, a new iconoclasm is forming in school board meetings and legislative chambers across this country. The term iconoclasm comes from the Greek word for “image-breaking,” and these new disciples of censorship will not stop until they have destroyed all that they deem profane.

Unlike the original iconoclasts, these individuals are not attempting to erase images of Christ or the Virgin Mary; instead, it is the depiction of Black youth facing microaggressions, an unjust criminal injustice system, police brutality, or the legacy of slavery. They seek to blot out depictions of coming-of-age stories for queer youth or narratives involving women taking agency over their bodies and sexualities. It is the erasure of implicit bias training designed to make all students feel welcome in schools regardless of their national origin, sexual orientation, gender identity, or religious background. In the crosshairs of their campaign for a return to a bygone monochromatic era are groups and identities that constitute the soul and the future of our country.

I have watched with disappointment as these disciples of censorship have made concerted efforts to prohibit material that teaches the history of racism or a curriculum that acknowledges the existence of Black queer history. Even in Ohio, where a public museum hosted Wiley’s beautiful work, there are pending bills that would likely restrict the perspectives of individuals who look like the man presented in his portrait. These bans on truth attempt to take back the paintbrush and the easel from communities of color and queer communities who have fought for generations to have their presence included in the mosaic of the history and the future of our country. Yet, while the paint is just starting to dry on these previously suppressed depictions, this neo-iconoclastic movement seeks to desecrate these images of people of color and queer people and erase them from our historical memory. 

However, as is evident by the ubiquitous amount of imagery in Christian churches around the world today, the first iconoclastic movement failed. If we work together, this new permutation will as well. We must tell those who seek to deface our images that Black queer history is not profane and that we will not be erased. We will not allow School Board officials to turn our classrooms into monuments of a failed ethnonationalist movement. We will not allow our legislative bodies to cultivate educational institutions that promote revisionist histories predicated on the subjugation of people of color and queer people.

The original iconoclasts were fearful that depicting religious imagery in sacred spaces would lead to biblically prohibited idolatry. Similarly, these modern-day adherents fear that talking about the history of race in this country or the existence of sexual minorities will cause future generations to adopt beliefs about inclusion and tolerance that are heretical to systems of white supremacy and Christian nationalism. However, the beliefs these iconoclasts are attempting to destroy are not idols or new gods to be feared. Instead, they are ancient pearls of wisdom that have fought against forces of oppression that have tried to dull their vibrancy and mute their truth for centuries.

Little do these iconoclasts know, these pearls of wisdom will not herald the end of our democracy, but will usher in a radical renewal that will help our country fully become a multiracial and inclusive democracy that respects the contributions and beauty of all Americans. 


Antonio L. Ingram II is Assistant Counsel at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. His views are his own.