At Princeton, Titus Kaphar Reckons with the University’s History of Slavery
In July of 1766, an advertisement announcing the sale of the estate of the late Samuel Finley, the fifth president of the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University), appeared in the Philadelphia Journal. On campus that August, the noted Presbyterian theologian’s personal property would be auctioned off: household furnishings, livestock, a light wagon and, to the astonishment of the Northern university’s community, “two negro women, a negro man, and three negro children.”
Last week, some 250 years later, Princeton unveiled Impressions of Liberty (2017), a public sculpture by the African-American artist Titus Kaphar that the Ivy League university commissioned to confront its shameful past. Kaphar describes the two-ton sculpture of Finley, an inverted bust carved into a block of sycamore wood and coated in graphite, as “a monument to the memory of the enslaved.” Etched into a layer of glass that has been placed over the dark recess created by Finley’s inverted head is a family of three finely dressed black figures.
The family is meant to represent not only the people that Finley enslaved during his tenure, but also the many other chattel slaves held by professors and the families of students since the university’s founding. Hovering within Finley’s silhouette, the black man, woman, and girl hold each other, the frightened expressions on their faces typical of those who were made to stand on auction blocks before them, unable to manifest their own destinies. At night, the sculpture, which is a part of Kaphar’s ongoing “Monumental Inversions” series, glows in the dark, illuminating the ugly fact of this country’s original sin.