Allen Uzikee Nelson’s art stands silent and powerful all over our nation’s capital. Hewn from steel with tools and blowtorches, the imposing sculptures of metal and glass are meant to weather with time, rusting and coloring with the passing years, the juxtaposed industrial material and African-inspired features an evocative blend of form, theme and autobiography.

In Virginia-based filmmaker Doug Harris’ documentary about the artist, “Uzikee: Washington DC’s Ancestral Sculptor,” which is showing for free on Thursday at the University of Southern Maine’s Hannaford Hall, we learn how Nelson’s long and eventful journey from Peoria, Illinois, to Washington D.C., was shaped by this country’s racial politics, just as Nelson’s art has been.

In his celebrated monuments to such Black historical figures as Paul Robeson, Thurgood Marshall, Marcus Garvey and Malcolm X, the film shows how the economic and racial forces of Peoria, with its all-important Caterpillar factories, sent the mathematically gifted Nelson into his school’s metal shop, since that was the track Black students were expected to take.

Taking his engineering background and his technical skills to Washington in the wake of the protests following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson joined up with many other Black educators and artists to form the Washington Technical Institute. Part of Lyndon Johnson’s efforts to reach out to D.C.’s majority-Black community following the civil rights movement, WTI became Nelson’s home, teaching and creating art that soon studded the capital’s streets, as well as other cities around the country.

In the documentary from Emmy-nominated filmmaker Harris (who is also Nelson’s nephew), we see the elderly Nelson, now an engineering professor at the University of the District of Colombia, still wielding his tools and his torches as the acclaimed artist walks the streets of his rapidly gentrifying neighborhood, musing on the long and ongoing struggle represented by his arresting artwork.

February is Black History Month, a federally created, ceremonial prompt for Americans to recognize the contributions and struggles of Black Americans. It’s also, in 2023, a timely reminder that there is an alarming and insidious campaign by a large segment of white America to utterly obscure, rewrite and suppress Black history. As “Uzikee” shows so subtly and eloquently, any feel-good celebration of the accomplishments of a Black American is invariably informed by America’s undeniably shameful prejudices, and the social, political and economic forces that result.


Now, nobody needs an old white guy writing from the whitest state in America to lecture on Black history. But what this old white guy might be suitable for is to call his fellow whites’ attention to just how pervasive the effort still is to censor Black stories, and to remind us all that a history written to erase the wrongs of the past is simply a tool to commit more crimes in the future.

In Florida, Gov. Ron DeSantis and his Republican majority have successfully forced teachers to pull their entire classroom libraries, lest they face discipline (including a proposed five-year prison sentence) for allowing students to read about subjects that DeSantis deems “inappropriate.” DeSantis also just successfully pressured the College Board to strip its AP African American Studies curriculum of such “divisive” topics as systemic racism, the Black Lives Matter movement, and any authors touching on Black feminism, queer topics, and the new, all-purpose conservative boogeyman, critical race theory.

If you can guess that the books most under fire deal with Black history, Native American, Asian American, Latino, LGBTQI issues, and other subjects that white conservatives don’t like, well, you get an “A.” Under cover of “protecting children,” book-banners are transparently deleting entire historical figures (like the children’s book “Thank You, Jackie Robinson,” by Barbara Cohen and Richard Cuffari, and “The Life of Rosa Parks,” by Kathleen Connors) and historical events (you know, like the entire civil rights movement). This isn’t paranoia, and it’s not hysteria. It’s happening, and it’s here.

And it’s not just Florida. Maine has seen school boards dealing with parents groups looking to ban books, too. So here’s to USM’s School of Social Work for sponsoring the free screening of “Uzikee,” a film about a Black artist whose life story no doubt will make certain white people uncomfortable. Take it from an old white man; we should be uncomfortable. History is uncomfortable, especially the history of racism and oppression in America. The best art evokes discomfort because it forces us to look at the world as it is and as it was, and not how those invested in the status quo would have it be.

As with Allen Uzikee Nelson’s sculptures, confronting the actual truth of who we are as a country and as a people is inevitably painful. And it should be. That’s how you grow. That’s how you change so that the mistakes and evils of the past aren’t codified into further injustices by those twisting history into their own self-serving image. Building a future on a falsified past creates a farcical, inherently unstable society. That society crumbles, and it takes a whole lot of people down with it.

Nelson’s statuary stands. It rusts, and weathers, and looms – and stands. As the artist explains late in “Uzikee,” his representations of Black historical figures stand as counterpoint to the official public art dotting D.C., art that celebrates slave owners (like George Washington). Is that an uncomfortable fact to incorporate into your image of America and its accepted history? Good.

“Uzikee: Washington DC’s Ancestral Sculptor” is showing on Thursday. A reception and introduction with filmmaker Doug Harris begins at 5:30 p.m. at USM’s Hannaford Hall, with the film starting at 6 p.m. The showing is free, but to reserve a seat, go to the screening’s Eventbrite page.

Dennis Perkins is a freelance writer who lives in Auburn with his wife and cat.

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