After decades of housing stained-glass windows commemorating the Confederacy, the Washington National Cathedral in DC has unveiled a new window installation created by artist Kerry James Marshall that centers the struggles of the racial justice movement and the resiliency of Black American people throughout time. Titled Now and Forever (2023), Marshall’s window panes aim to both recognize the United States’s dark past and honor the enduring legacy of African-American perseverance and resistance.
The cathedral revealed the new window display in a public dedication ceremony this past Saturday, September 23 that also debuted Pulitzer finalist Dr. Elizabeth Alexander’s new original poem, “American Song,” which will be featured beneath the installation in hand-engraved limestone in 2024.
“Part of our mission is to ensure that everyone who visits or worships here can see a piece of themselves in the cathedral, and that’s what we hope these windows can help us do,” Reverend Canon Leonard L. Hamlin Sr., who also serves as the cathedral’s minister for equity and inclusion, said in a statement shared with Hyperallergic.
Known for spotlighting the experiences of historically marginalized Black American people, Marshall’s contribution to the cathedral marks his first time working with the medium of stained glass. Installed as side-by-side window panes, Now and Forever depicts a scene of Black demonstrators holding protest signs that read “No,” “Fairness,” “Not,” and “No Foul Play.” Their identities concealed behind the signs, the crowd of protestors resembles many gatherings across the country that continue to take place in the ongoing fight for equality and justice.
Six years ago, the Washington National Cathedral de-installed its long-standing window display featuring iconographic images honoring the Confederacy and the lives of Generals Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson. Donated by the United Daughters of the Confederacy, the windows were first installed in 1953 and remained in place for more than 60 years until they were finally removed in 2017 in the weeks after the violent Unite the Right rally in Virginia that resulted in the death of 32-year-old Heather Heyer and the injury of 19 others.
“[The windows] told a false narrative, extolling two individuals who fought to keep the institution of slavery alive in this country,” Randolph Marshall Hollerith, dean of the Washington National Cathedral, said during Saturday’s ceremony. “They were intended to elevate the Confederacy, and they completely ignored the millions of Black Americans who have fought so hard and struggled so long to claim their birthright as equal citizens.”
Although the Confederate iconography has now been removed, parts of the original stained-glass display remain in place above Now and Forever, aligning with Marshall’s decision to maintain a conversation between the past and present.
“I’m not so interested in completely erasing the history of the relationship of those windows of the cathedral, and the replacement of the original windows with what’s there now,” Marshall said in a statement.
The original windows are currently in storage within the cathedral while institutional leaders deliberate their future. After the police killing of George Floyd in 2020, the cathedral loaned the windows to the National Museum of African American History and Culture for a temporary exhibition examining the Reconstruction era. The cathedral is also currently conducting a review of its iconography currently on view as part of an ongoing process to make the space a safer, more inclusive environment.
“The windows are just a step, a symbol,” Reverend Hamlin said, adding that the “real power” in the redesigned display is its ability to generate conversation.
“The windows are beautiful, and significant, but the real beauty will be seen when we create a culture and a country where everyone is valued, included and uplifted.”