Of Statues, Monuments, and other Symbols of Heritage, Honor, and Gratitude
History is not an artefact, or a golden nugget, to be sanitized and bequeathed to subsequent generations.
In the season 2 finale of Outlander, time-traveler Claire Fraser visits a museum featuring, among other artefacts, a wax sculpture of Charles Edward Stuart. In reaction to a fellow visitor’s admiration of the statue, Claire, in her characteristic straightforward style, tells him, “He wasn’t that tall in real life. He could have been great. He had the name, the cause, the support of good men, willing to lay down their lives for him. They’ve taken a fool and turned him into a hero.”
Claire’s observation about Bonnie Prince Charlie’s iconography goes to the heart of the debate around memorials and their place in historical discourse, and in our lives. Who gets to teach history and recount memory? How and to what end? Most importantly, it underscores the deification and romanticization ethos inherent in many memorial projects.
History/memory. Whose history/memory?
Following the public extra-judicial killing of George Floyd, protests in support of Black lives and against racism more broadly have erupted everywhere. One of the main galvanizing points of the protests has been the question of memorials of Confederate generals, slave-owners, colonizers, and other inveterate racists. This reckoning is happening in small towns and in big cities all around the globe.
For the most part, the reaction of heads of state in Europe and America has been intransigence and insensitivity. While Emmanuel Macron and Boris Johnson acknowledge racism in the “glorious” and “complicated” histories of their respective countries, they have insisted they will not tolerate the expurgation of their histories. In a June 14th address to the French nation, Macron was adamant that “the Republic won’t erase any name from its history. It will forget none of its artworks, it won’t take down statues.” As for Trump, his predictable response has been to incite and use violence against protesters and sign executive orders (called decrees in authoritarian states) protecting monuments, statues, as well as building new ones.
As young activists at Lexington City Council’s June 18th and July 2nd meetings noted (in support of their petition to remove the names of Confederate generals from the Virginia city’s public spaces), removal of statues is not about erasing history; it is about freeing up space for other memories and histories, respecting dispossessed minority lives in the process. And at a June 23 panel discussion on Black protests, Washington and Lee University history professor, Nneka Dennie, noted that removing Confederate statues from open public spaces (and relocating them to museums, for example), “makes public spaces less antagonistic to Black people.”
Verily, statues and monuments can be beautiful works of art, yet are not best suited for teaching history. Since they tend to privilege the single, universalizing story over the necessary diversity of historical experiences and perspectives, they can easily become distractions from the complex truth of our experiences. Not only do they often erase other histories, they traumatize the victims of those erased histories, even if those victims may not always voice their trauma. Erecting memorials of ‘great’ men is about taking up more space, stifling out the memories of the already-disenfranchised, as if the millions of pages of history books extolling the virtues of the conquerors and rehashing the inferiority of the conquered were not enough.
Removal of decontextualized statues of Confederates and other racists from sites of prominence is not the end of history; it simply reduces the trauma of Blacks and other victims of White supremacist ideology while, hopefully, making space for their own narratives. Individual families have the God-given right to teach their children what they want in the privacy of their homes, where they can choose to tell half-truths or the whole truth about the nation’s history. They have the right to send their children to non-tax payer funded private schools and museums where they can be taught the history of their heroes from whatever perspective they are paying for.
History is not an artefact, or a golden nugget, to be sanitized and bequeathed to subsequent generations. It is a dynamic entity that pulsates in the memory of those who lived or inherited it. Because history does not belong to any one person or group, and because it is thought and lived differently by different people, it benefits from being reviewed, revised, and rewritten as and whenever new truths and memories are unearthed. The great irony of the automatic reaction from leaders like Macron and Trump is the fear of being victims of their own original sin. Most of the statues and other memorials the “Republic won’t erase” were erected precisely to erase other memories while fixing those of the domineering group in a romantic pose for all eternity.
Blacks and other victims of large-scale generational trauma are not clamoring for the erasure of history. More than any group, disenfranchised peoples know the dangers of that one-dimensional project. So what they are calling for instead is a three-dimensional, 360-degree retelling of history. One in which every participant — collaborator, victim, and victimizer — gets the space and time to tell their own stories. Indeed, as the African proverb notes, until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.
The fetishism of memorials
While memorials, per se, may not be bad, those conceived specifically to glorify a select group of people can be problematic. We tend to memorialize our ‘heroes’ in our own image and desires. Eventually, such memorials become excuses for our self-deification. This is the reason the first thing megalomaniacs do when they come to power is engage in outsize architectural projects (towers, walls, statues, etc.), which double as monuments to their own ever-expanding egos and cupidity. Sadly, we humans have a fascination, mostly morbid, with this brand of fetishism. One that becomes particularly baffling in a republic that facilitates the setting up of celebration stations honoring those who, if they had their way, would have eternalized one of the most horrific institutions in human history.
According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, there are well over 1600 Confederate memorials in the US (including monuments, statues, schools, and military bases). This number becomes exponentially higher if we count counties, towns, cemeteries, office buildings, hospitals, and streets named after Confederate figures. One place where we see a saturation of Confederate memorials is the city of Lexington, seat of Rockbridge County in Virginia.
The quaint little town in the Shenandoah Valley, which was home to Monacan and Cherokee communities for thousands of years, has become a sort of epicenter of the battle for the soul of America. Wherever you turn in this “shrine of the south,” there is a memorial to Lee, Jackson, and other Confederates, reminding you of where you are. According to a departed colleague, when his family moved to Lexington from Chicago many years ago, his son came home one day and said, “Dad, I didn’t know we lost the war?” “What are you talking about, son,” the colleague responded, “we did not lose the war.” Here, Black children go to school with classmates who spot Confederate bandanas or cellphone covers, and who routinely say, ‘slavery ended a long time ago; why are we still talking about it?’ Here, MLK day events uneasily coincide with Lee-Jackson day celebrations. Petitions and counter petitions calling for the preservation or removal of the names and statues of Lee and Jackson have pitted die-hard Confederates (among other interest groups) against those who would rather see that chapter of America’s history properly contextualized. Following decisions by the city to ban Confederate (and other non-US, Virginia or city) flags from city-owned flagpoles, and by Washington and Lee University to reduce the Confederate footprint on its campus, the City of Lexington voted unanimously in the early morning hours of July 3 to remove Stonewall Jackson’s name from the main city cemetery. A decision instigated principally by the activism of a diverse coalition of the area’s young citizens who love their town, but are ashamed of the glorification of its sordid past.
Colossuses, narrow worlds, and dishonorable graves
It is entirely possible to make a case for memorials. To women and men of all races and climes — like Olympe de Gouges or Martin Luther King Jr. — who, at tremendous personal costs, left behind a legacy of humility and unconditional love and devotion to the cause of humanity. Or to ideas and values that elicit from us the best our hearts can offer. For good or ill, we are creatures drawn to symbolism. As words, rituals, artefacts, or larger structures, memorials arguably represent powerful shortcuts to our histories, memories, dreams, and desires.
To be sure, there are no neutral memorials. Memorials, with or without context, are intended to dominate our physical, psychological, and imaginative landscapes. Some intimidate us, “bestride the narrow world” we live in, and turn us into “dishonorable graves” or “underlings.” In this, they are the concrete manifestations of the desires and priorities of those who prefer them to more complex renditions of history and memory.
In making their case for honoring certain slave-owning and Confederate ancestors, some have invariably argued that these men were military geniuses who also worked tirelessly to repair the country after the war by ensuring the unity, security, and education of generations of American youth. There is truth in this argument no one can erase. However, what many of these advocates fail to acknowledge is the fact that when these men drew up their blueprints for American renewal (the same for the Declaration and the Constitution), the uplift of Black and Native Americans — on whose labor and land they built much of their wealth and renown — did not figure into the calculus. Moreover, we are yet to see proof that during the last years of their lives, when some of them supposedly atoned for their past mistakes, these men did everything in their power to convince their fellow Americans that Blacks and Native peoples should be equal benefactors of our shared equality. To them, Blacks and Indians were at best humans-in-waiting. Whatever benefits may accrue to peoples of color from the actions of these men, such benefits were not intended for them. So while it may be fairly normal for certain Whites — and a few people of color — to venerate them, it is supremely unfair and insensitive to expect Blacks and Native peoples in general to follow suit.
Yes, we can and should give credit wherever it is due. Indeed, we owe it to history, the truth, and to ourselves to teach present and future generations the good works of Slave-owning founding fathers and Confederate icons, or any one for that matter. However, to pay them homage with loud memorials while deliberately downplaying their misdeeds is not to give them credit; it is glorifying them. After all, Nazis also lived and worked in their respective communities! Yet, with the exception of Neo-Nazis and other White supremacists and anti-Semites, no one goes around denying the holocaust or honoring Hitler and his enablers. On the contrary, especially since the late 70s, the US government has been relentless in its pursuit of so-called reformed Nazis who have lived amongst us as normal, hardworking, tax-paying fellow citizens. How is honoring unreformed racists, enslavers, or colonizers different from honoring Nazis? No slave-owner or intentional oppressor of other peoples can ever be great by any stretch of the moral imagination. Except to those who think that the oppressed do not merit consideration in the grand scheme of human rights and equality.
If we must erect public memorials to Lee and Jackson to honor their achievements, we should at the very least build around them memorials of equal scale commemorating the life, work, and suffering of the slaves they owned and all those who suffered because of their bad actions. For Lee, more specifically, we could add this inscription: ‘He chose to fight for the Confederacy and against his country. He owned slaves and believed slavery was “necessary for their instruction as a race” and would “prepare and lead them to better things.” Though he submitted to federal authority, he never truly disavowed his Confederate past or stood up for the equality of all. He served for five years as President of Washington College in Virginia, where he helped revive the failing school while failing to prevent or willingly punish abuses by his students against Black members of the local community.’ As for Stonewall Jackson, we should erect next to his statue, one in honor of his sister, Laura, with the following epigraph, for the education of those who argue the man should be “judged through the context of his time,” and not by the yardstick of modern sensibilities: ‘Laura Jackson Arnold. Shun and maligned by family and community for her courage and independent spirit. She opposed the Confederacy and those who would defend it. A staunch Unionist and indiscriminate healer, as devoted to the American flag as Stonewall was hostile to it. Long forgotten under the dark shadow of her brother.’
If we must keep the statues of King Leopold II of Belgium in open public spaces, let us surround them with the hands of millions of Congolese men, women, and children he cut to assuage his insatiable appetite for rubber, ivory, and other riches of the land. And while doing that, let us organize monthly school excursions to the sites and read excerpts from Mark Twain’s King Leopold’s Soliloquy, or from the writings of Waynesboro native William Henry Sheppard and Rockbridge native and Washington and Lee alumnus William McCutcheon Morrison, among others who risked their privileges and lives to expose the atrocities committed against the hapless Congolese people by great men of their time.
The twenty-first century, and beyond
“The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line — the relation of the darker to the lighter races of men in Asia and Africa, in America and the islands of the sea,” foresaw WEB DuBois at the turn of the century.
The problem of the twenty-first century is, in great part, the problem of the color line.
The color line was the problem of America even before 1619, when Columbus and other Europeans scoured the world in search of spices, as well as lands and peoples to plunder.
All people of goodwill should hope that the color line will fade away as the twenty-first century grows older, replaced by the concert of nature’s myriad colors.
Too much ink and blood have been spilled over memorials and in defense of ‘great’ men. It is true that ‘man’ does not live by bread alone; yet, no memorial is worth an ounce of human life or dignity. Rather than expend precious resources on memorials that cause pain to any of us, let us utilize those resources to ensure that all members of our community are treated with the respect and dignity they deserve simply by virtue of being human.
Real monuments are the schools, hospitals, and homes we build to ensure no mind, body, or soul goes unnourished.
Real memorials are in the eyes of the child who can look up to their parents and their society and feel loved and protected.
Our real monuments are in the lives of girls and women who feel safe in their homes, in dark alleyways and brightly lit public spaces of our communities.
Or of our fellow citizens who should not live in daily fear of 8:46 executions in broad daylight and in full view of their fellow citizens.
And of our LGBTQ+ brothers and sisters who, regardless of the rainbow color they are wrapped in, can live their lives fully without the slightest worry some self-loathing fellow-citizen will unload their insecurities upon them.
Our real memorials are in the stories of those who visit our lands, then return home to their families and friends singing the praise of our ‘shining city upon the hill’ that is a true beacon to all those adrift on the seas of human arrogance, ignorance, and rapacity.
If the removal of iconographies of human aggrandizement is the price to pay for these monuments of hope and life, that is not asking for too much!