Productively reappropriating unjust symbols


If readers were to troll through the last 30 years’ worth of Pine Bluff Commercial issues, they would encounter innumerable reports and editorials bidding something be done to stabilize or renovate the Saenger Theater. It’s a topic that has aroused passions for decades. Anyone with a lick of sense recognizes that a faithfully restored (and updated) Saenger would be a tremendous boon to the entire southeast region of the state.

In those countless missives, the reader would also see enumerations of the Saenger’s past glories. Famous figures and events are fondly remembered. The structure itself is similarly lionized. It is architecturally distinct — a wonderful relegate from the era of “movie palaces.”

We took joyful note this week of a move in the right direction. As reported in The Commercial, the Arkansas Historic Preservation Program recently awarded the city of Pine Bluff a second grant in the amount of $23,967 to help fund restoration of the Saenger Theater.

The grant award comes nearly five months after the Pine Bluff City Council approved an appropriation of $11,983 so that the city could apply for the “2-to-1” matching grant from the state.

With almost $40,000 in working capital, much needed repairs will be made to the theater’s tile mansard roof and other masonry. This comes on the heels of a $16,000 grant from the Southeast Arkansas Economic Development District made last year.

It would be easy to cloyingly extol the virtues of the old theater. Heaven knows we’ve certainly done our share of that — as well as allow others to make the case on these pages. The present economic and social circumstances require a more sophisticated and analytical approach.

As has also been well-covered, the Saenger — like many institutions of its day — was racially segregated. Accordingly, white and black perceptions of the building may be radically different. We understand the inclination to regard the edifice as a symbol of oppression and the old order.

We would like to offer an alternative vision. Without denying the injustices of the past, we have an opportunity to rechristen the facility as a symbol of unity and triumph. The forces of right and equality have in large measure won out. As such, there would be no better way to mark that victory than by appropriating the erstwhile symbol of oppression as a tool for promoting further advances in the cause of freedom and social justice.

To be certain this is not just a victory because a segment of the community no longer has to use a side entrance and sit in the balcony. While those things are true, it is a victory because we as an integrated and unified population will have repurposed the mechanisms of injustice for the advancement of us all. In short, the thing that exemplified what was wrong with us can now be used to show what’s right about us.

Of course those kinds of transitions don’t come with a small price tag — financially or emotionally. It will require substantial investment of both types. We will have to demonstrate that we are bigger than our old wounds. We will have to demonstrate that we have the civic wherewithal to fund such an opus. We will have to demonstrate that we are capable of a unified, positive vision — a vision that relies on no outsiders — only the untapped strength within us.