Comedians are renowned for appropriating serious subjects and transforming them into material that is, at once, humorous and revealing. Such was the case last week when comedian AJ Foster took on the controversial city seal in Whitesboro, New York – the one that depicts a white settler subduing a Native American.
As the country began to take notice of the town’s seal amid the nationwide debate surrounding the Confederate flag, Foster decided to draft fellow comedian Larry O’Grady and reenact the image for a photo in front of a city sign at a park not far from Foster’s Whitesboro residence. Foster uploaded the image to his Instagram account and wrote, “I got you my Native American brothas!”
“I wanted to make a statement when I posted the photo, but never imagined that it would get this much attention,” Foster wrote in an email to ICTMN on Tuesday.
Foster said he first noticed the image about nine months ago on the side of city vehicle as workers were filling potholes in the road. He later researched the genesis of the seal and began to incorporate the curious narrative into his stand-up routine.
Earlier this month, Whitesboro Mayor Patrick O’Connor defended the seal, arguing that the image is merely a friendly wrestling match between two neighbors.
“I think you have to take all the facts into consideration. And if people take the time to do that and they reach out to us, or they do the research themselves, it’s actually a very accurate depiction of friendly wrestling matches that took place back in those days,” O’Connor told Village Voice reporter Jackson Connor.
Yet, regardless of what history would tell, Foster feels the seal “was executed in poor taste” and should be extirpated, even if just for its ambiguity.
“No one’s first thought when initially seeing this image is, ‘Hey look at this friendly wrestling match!’ Most people see a Native American being choked into submission by a white man, so for that reason, yes, I do think it should be removed.”
Foster said after he posted the image online he began receiving dozens of emails – specifically from Native Americans – thanking him for his humor and for taking a stand against the seal.
“As a black man, my people have experienced so much racism and injustice throughout history and continue to experience it today,” he said. “So I can clearly empathize with any other ethnic group that is facing oppression. I originally did this just to be funny, but the aftermath has opened my eyes to the underlying struggle and the overall lack of respect that so many [N]atives around the country face everyday. I’m happy I can give a little comic relief to those people who feel pain from this type of offensive imagery.”
On Foster’s Instagram account, Native American hip-hop artist and activist Nataanii Means called his photo “dope” and thanked Foster for “helping spread awareness.”