On Sunday, June 21, 2020, the American Museum of Natural History in New York City stated that they are intending to remove a statue of Theodore Roosevelt, the 26th president of the United States, from the front entrance of the museum. The statue of Roosevelt depicts the president in a position of power, riding tall on his horse, while an African and Native American men stand subservient to his side. This statue has prompted debates surrounding its ethics and message, as people have stated that it clearly depicts American colonialism and racism. The museum received a blessing from Roosevelt’s great-grandson and New York City’s permission to bring the statue down. The conversation that is being heightened around this statue is just one of many statues that have been under scrutiny as of late. Statues of Andrew Jackson, Christopher Columbus, and Thomas Jefferson, among others, have been labeled as depicting a racist American past that is no longer consistent with the country we’d like to be. This scenario has been magnified by the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, as people are now advocating for a more progressive, inclusive, and open-minded nation; to them, taking down symbols of white supremacy is one step in the right direction to uprooting the systemic inequities in this country. While statues connected to the United States’ racist past should be preserved in museums for future generations, they should be stripped from public view because the monuments we choose to put up as a nation should be reflective of the country we’d like to be.
One of the most recent efforts by protesters has been to topple the statue of Andrew Jackson situated in Lafayette Square in Washington, D.C. While Andrew Jackson was our president and part of our collective history, having him as a symbol in our nation’s capital is antithetical to the America that we are striving to become.
White colonists in the United States viewed lands inhabited by the Native Americans in the southeastern portion of the country as highly valuable, and even though the “Five Civilized Tribes,” located in the southeast, had made an effort to adhere to racial demands and conversions, the colonists still wanted the land for themselves. As an Army general, Jackson had long advocated for the policy of “Indian removal.” This ideology manifested itself in the form of the Indian Removal Act of 1830, resulting in the federal government forcibly removing Natives from states and pushing them toward “Indian Territory,” located in present-day Oklahoma.
This journey was inhumane and treacherous: 3500 of the 15,000 Creeks that journeyed to this designated living area perished due to the negligence and racism of the US Government. Andrew Jackson was directly responsible for their deaths, but he was never held responsible due to the societal views of the time. Just because 19th century America was not able to see the blatantly racist acts of Jackson does not mean that we have to keep putting him up on a pedestal and act like he is representative of the best parts of ourselves. It’s up to us to uphold our American values and stop lauding him as a virtuous hero exempt from criticism.
Christopher Columbus has become one of the most controversial historical figures in contemporary analysis. There is a reason why states across the country and countless Americans are moving away from October 12th being labeled as “Columbus Day,” instead opting for “Indigenous People’s Day”: Columbus was a pillager, rapist, and tyrant. While many Columbus statues have been torn down recently by protesters, the Christopher Columbus Memorial Fountain in Washington, D.C., should be taken down as well.
When Columbus first landed on an island in the Bahamas, he wrote that “With 50 men they can all be subjugated and made to do what is required of them.” This is deeply troubling because at first glance, Columbus was already using prejudiced thinking and profiling, something that is still rampant today. He did not offer the Natives that he encountered a real chance to work with him and his crew; he went off of the assumption that they would have nothing of value or substance to offer him. By keeping Columbus statues in the view of the public, we are saying that this way of thinking is still acceptable.
Columbus later returned to the island, after his men had roamed the area in search of gold and wealth, taking women as sex slaves and as easy labor for them. Columbus and his men continually sexually assaulted women and girls, hunting them down when they refused to comply with their demands. Again, these acts are horrible and reprehensible and would certainly not be tolerated in today’s society; they aren’t just anti-American: they’re anti-decency and respect.
While Columbus died in 1506, the consequences of his leadership lasted much longer: Bartolomé de Las Casas wrote about the cruelty of the Spanish explorers in 1542: “They hacked them to pieces, slicing open their bellies with their swords as though they were so many sheep herded into a pen. … They grabbed suckling infants by the feet and, ripping them from their mothers’ breasts, dashed them headlong against the rocks.” Because Columbus allowed pillaging, slavery, and murder to occur while he was still alive, these treatments continued and ultimately became much worse. Columbus remains a symbol of bigotry, oppression, and racial destruction that has no business being anywhere near the United States of America (in fact, Columbus did not set foot in the present-day United States, so why do we still revere him?). We must take a step back as a country and reevaluate the messages that we are sending through the monuments we build and the stories we depict in them.
Thomas Jefferson is one of our most revered founding fathers; he was one of the main authors of the Declaration of Independence and was the 3rd president. People often neglect that the same person who wrote the famed words “all men are created equal” did not seem to fully believe his own words: Jefferson directly benefited from the institution of slavery, employing this servitude fully on his property. There are numerous statues of Jefferson (including in the US Capitol) that should be reconsidered and evaluated.
In public, Jefferson called slavery a “moral depravity” and believed that it was antithetical to the values of the United States. However, he also believed that slaves and masters constituted two distinct nations and could never live together as one people.
He advocated for a gradual emancipation of the slaves in America. This is likely because while Jefferson believed slavery was immoral, he still wanted to benefit from the institution while he was still alive; he would have thought it too radical to free all of the slaves at once. Actions often speak louder than words, and one must analyze Jefferson’s inaction toward solving the issue of slavery instead of his hollow words that he really did not mean.
He stated that blacks were “as incapable as children,” suggesting that he believed that his slaves were mentally inferior to him and did not deserve to be on the same playing field as him. This feeling of intellectual superiority arises from the fact that white supremacy was so entrenched and the lives of African Americans were so belittled that their opinions and beliefs were not to be viewed on the same playing field; however, this way of thinking leads to cultural stagnation, and our nation never would have been able to progress with this superficial and degrading mindset. Additionally, Jefferson stated that the ability to keep slavery was like having “a wolf by the ear, and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go.” He believed that if the slaves were released, they would harbor so much resentment toward their former masters that a race war would erupt in America. This antiquated mindset is not indicative of the America we are becoming and would ultimately like to be; we do not have to revere Jefferson in the same light anymore because of this.
SHOULDN’T MONUMENTS STAY UP AS REMINDERS?
Some people believe that we should not take down statues because these statues are representative of our 1st amendment rights of freedom of speech. Sophia A. Nelson, an author and journalist, argues in her article titled “Opinion: Don’t Take Down Confederate Monuments. Here’s Why” that when we take down Confederate statues that represent our past, we do not learn anything about our past; instead, we run away from our past and will continue to perpetuate the wrongdoings of the past. This view is not accurate, however; our country does not need these racist symbols to continue standing to learn about our past. The Confederacy and all of its problems are well-documented and in history books, and this is where they belong. Physical statues do not have to serve as reminders because the influences of these issues still persist. In addition, Germany went through a long period of taking down Nazi symbolism and statues in their country. They did not feel that these reminders represented the Germany that they wanted to become. Those physical symbols of their past, they believed, had no place in the New Germany they were creating as a country. The United States could learn a few things from the way Germany handled its past. We as a nation are too entrenched in tradition that we feel like we don’t have to be held accountable for the actions that our country made in the past. It is our job, as members of one of the wealthiest and most powerful nations in the world, to represent 21st century values of acceptance and inclusion; the people we choose to revere speak volumes about our values.
The most important weapon to battle this form of ancient prejudice encapsulated in these statues is education. I encourage everyone to do their own research on national monuments and statues and the stories that are behind them. It is easy to glance at the statues and marvel at their beauty without realizing the cultural and historical implications of them. The more educated our country is on the true history of historical figures, the easier it will be to reevaluate them in light of our contemporary views. We do not have to be held hostage to how we used to think in the past.
In addition to educating ourselves, we must do our best to support those communities that have been directly affected by the ideas perpetuated in the monuments and statues that we uphold, including the African American and Native American communities. Some organizations that we can donate to include the Black Trans Advocacy Coalition and the Native American Rights Fund.
It is time to move into a New America that is just, inclusive, and accepting of everyone, not one that still lauds our racist and unforgiving past.