The Fight over America’s Statues
Around the US, and in other parts of the world, activists are demanding the removal of certain statues depicting historical figures, which they believe celebrate racist actions. In Richmond, Virginia, protesters took down a statue of Jefferson Davis, and pushed a Christopher Columbus statue into a pond. Additionally, in England, a monument of Edward Colston, a slave trader, was dumped into Bristol Harbor. These actions have been driven by the surge of conversation around inherent symbols of suppression in the United States. The deaths of unarmed African Americans, such as George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, sparked an international movement to reexamine long accepted aspects of society from the origins of the police as slave patrols to brands based on racist caricatures to statues of slave owners in public spaces. As Americans work to address the country’s long history of institutionalized racism, public memorials should reflect evolving societal values. In accordance with the current demands of Black Lives Matter protesters, statues of figures relating to slavery and racism should be taken down as they are an appalling statement that celebrates immoral actions. Despite opposing claims that they serve as an educational tool, placing them in museums would be more effective in educating the public.
Significance of Statues
Statues and monuments are an important topic of conversation as they are powerful symbols, especially when placed on public property. Historical instances of statues being used to make a political statement can be seen from the erection of Colossus of Nero, a 98 ft bronze statue of Emperor Nero, during ancient Rome to the thousands of monuments to Lenin in Soviet Russia. Dictators around the world commission monuments of themselves in an attempt to memorialize their image while displaying their wealth and power. Contemporary versions of this practice are evident in universities, where buildings are named for famous alumni or influential figures as a way to honor their accomplishments. Thus, the statues of people who practiced or actively promoted immoral actions, such as slavery, in front of city halls and town plazas can be seen as acceptance or even endorsement of their beliefs. For residents whose ancestors were victims of systematic suppression, these statues are just another reminder that those ideas have not yet been fully denounced and eradicated.
Taking Down Confederate Monuments
Given the significance of statues, figures of confederate leaders, slave traders, and colonizers should not be left up as they do not represent society’s values today. Between 1890 and 1929, many confederate statues were commissioned in order to uphold the “Lost Cause” myth, an attempt to romanticize the Confederate effort as a heroic fight by often minimizing the role of slavery. At the same time, Jim Crow laws were prevalent in order to enforce segregation and reduce African Americans to second class citizens. The monuments were erected to promote a false, white-washed narrative of history, while racism was still being imposed by force. Since then, legislation, such as the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the 14th amendment, have been enacted to advance civil rights. However, in order to truly move towards an equal society, racist actions and beliefs should no longer be glorified with public monuments.
Opposition to the Movement
As states move to remove controversial statues, a group of vocal critics, including prominent politicians, have voiced their objections. When Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney announced her decision to remove all of the city’s Confederate statues, Virginia Senator Amanda Chase (R) commented that it was “an overt effort to erase all white history”. Although the Virginia Senate Republican Caucus ultimately denounced Chase’s comments in a statement, the organization also stated that the statues should be kept up as a way to contextualize history. This incident displays the main argument from those in opposition to the removal of confederate monuments; they argued that removing historic statues would be an attempt to erase American history when we should actually be learning about past mistakes. However, many of the statues that cities have removed are being placed in museums, which are a more effective way to learn history without glorifying the past. Museums are able to provide historical context to statues through descriptions or additional displays that allow viewers to understand the intentions behind the monument. Without this additional information, people are only able to see a heroic representation of a confederate figure, which could cause misinterpretation. In addition, there are alternative ways of remembering history that also sheds light on the black perspective. For example, Kehinde Wiley, an African American artist, created a statue titled “Rumors of War”, which is on display at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts; the piece appears to be a traditional Confederate monument at first glance, but the figure is actually a black man with his dreadlocks tied back in a ponytail. His work shows the absence of black voices in historical narratives and displays the aspects of the country’s history that have often been suppressed. Instead of using confederate statues to teach history, America should look towards sources that portray neglected voices throughout its past.
A nationwide initiative to remove confederate monuments is imperative in order to move towards a country where every citizen is considered equal. The glorification of figures that advocated for slavery is not a representation of the steps America has taken to become a more inclusive nation. Through partnering with the African American community, cities can erect new statues that contextualize history in an accurate, encompassing manner.