“Tradition is not worshiping the ashes but preserving the fire.” Mahler
I never mastered German (Ich versuche immer noch) but I always liked the German word for landmark Denkmal because it sounded like a contraction of “Think a minute” or “Think once” and I thought that is what a good landmark did, it made you think about some element of the past and wonder why it was here in the present.
If you want more German words for landmarks, check out my “Monuments, Memorials and Erasure” blog from 2017, written during the last bout of iconoclasm. Here we are again. In response to the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, hundreds of thousands of people on six continents have protested in the streets against systemic racism, police brutality and the legacy of disenfranchisement.
These protests have defaced or destroyed memorials perceived as celebrating racist hegemony. Indeed, many of them did. Confederate monuments erected a generation or more after the end of the Confederacy were an attempt to solidify Jim Crow. In Bristol, England, they chucked the statue of a slaver into the ocean, and in Richmond at least four Confederate statues have been pulled down by protestors, many after the Governor’s decision to remove the massive 1895 statue of Robert E. Lee, although that is held up in court right now.
Lee never wanted statues or memorial to what became known as “The Lost Cause” and was dead a quarter-century before his image went up in Richmond.
The National Trust for Historic Preservation came out with a stronger statement than it did during the 2017 iconoclasm, while still leaving the door open to local communities who decide to contextualize their monuments rather than remove them. In any case, they were clear that any symbol or statue designed to stigmatize or terrorize any segment of the population should go. Duh.
That doesn’t stop those uncomfortable with the iconoclasm from driveling out the “you can’t erase history” pablum, as if history texts would somehow vanish with the statues. Besides, in almost every case the statue is to be preserved in a history museum, not valorizing public space.
Iconoclasm exists across human societies. Buddhist icons scratched out in Angkor for Hindu ones, Jain and Hindu temples smashed to create mosques in the Deccan, and of course the anti-idolatry of Mao’s Red Guards. Heck, even the Orthodox Christians who do icons better than anyone have had periods of iconoclasm in their history.
My friend Joseph McGill of the Slave Dwelling Project, who has dedicated his life to Black Lives past and present, tends to support keeping monuments and contextualizing them. He worries about the “slippery slope” between tearing down some to tearing down all statues.
The momentum right now has gone from Confederate to Union and plenty of other statues as well, from Francis Scott Key to Teddy Roosevelt to U.S. Grant, Cervantes, Christopher Columbus and even Mount Rushmore. In fact, even the great Augustus St. Gaudens memorial to the 54th Massachusetts (Black Union Soldiers) got tagged in Boston Common because when people are rioting, ALL statues are The Man.
Christopher Columbus just went down here in San Antonio. Only a couple years older than me, the statue was put up in the late 1950s, and it reminds me of the various statues in public parks in Chicago. These were often placed by various ethnic associations to mark their neighborhood space through the media of national heroes.
Chicago’s Humboldt Park had, in addition to Baron von Humboldt and Fritz Reiner for the Germans, Leif Ericson for the Norwegians and a Miner holding his daughter for the working class in general. The park previously had Thaddeus Koszciusko, but the Poles moved him out to Solidarity Drive on the lakefront in 1980, because by then the neighborhood was Puerto Rican. The Puerto Ricans in turn tried to erect a statue of Pedro Albizu Campos but the park rejected it because Albizu Campos had advocated violence against the government (less successfully than the Confederacy) He ended up across the street on private land.
We don’t write history with statues, but we do write power relationships with them. The examples in Humboldt Park show how immigrant groups asserted their presence and power. Robert E. Lee in Richmond demonstrated how those in power intimidated a portion of the population.
Preservation is a process that treats each site based on its individual significance. This is why Joe McGill calls for contextualization and this is why the National Trust leaves the final decision to the individual place. We have a recently installed statue of Theodore Roosevelt in San Antonio but they are removing one in New York because it is a very different statue that is clearly problematic. There are statues of people we actually might want to valorize (like Lincoln) that produce a cringe because of the racist way they were composed a century or more ago.
Everyone keeps asking me for a simple answer. Are they going to tear down all the statues of Washington and Jefferson because they were enslavers? No, but that is the wrong question. That is a reductio ad absurdum betraying a fear of understanding our history in a new way.
The questions are simply: Who is this in public space? Why and when was it put here? What does it mean to this community today?
And perhaps you might also ask: How comfortable are we with this as a Denkmal, Mahnmal, Ehrenmal or Gedenkstätte?
UPDATE July 8, 2020
Lonnie Bunch III, Secretary of the Smithsonian, said it best:
“What is crucially important about this is that removing statues is not about erasing history. Removing statues in many ways is about finding a more accurate history, a history that is more in keeping with the best scholarship we have out there. So for me, it is about making sure we don’t forget what those statues symbolize. It’s about pruning them, removing some, contextualizing others and recognizing that there is nothing wrong with a country recognizing that its identity is evolving over time.”
JULY 24 update: Chicago just removed two Columbus statues on the same day!