Protestors toppled the Christopher Columbus statue outside the state capital in St. Paul last week. This was met with responses of outrage to tacit approval by the Walz administration. This has caused me to reflect on the presence, purpose, and appropriateness of monuments and what this says about our nation.
Why hold on to such monuments of our history if not to protect what those monuments stand for?
Many argue keeping them to honors the best men and women of American history—end of discussion. Others rationalize keeping them to remember that component of our history, even the negative or evil aspects. Still others argue it is unfair to judge the subjects of monuments out of context of the time and by today’s standards. They were monumental at the time.
I appreciate the last answer because it is honest. However, I do not accept the argument that we need to preserve the monument as a means of preserving the history. Monuments are not designed illuminate and teach history. They tell the preferred story as understood by the artist who made it and the society that commissioned it. Monuments preserve a perception of a person and what he or she represented at that. Monuments are designed to elicit adulation.
That isn’t the only purpose, however. In addition to highlighting an historical figure, they chronicle who the society was when the monument was erected. A great many confederate-leader monuments were erected years after the civil war during the Jim Crow era of the late 1800s and early 1900s. More in the 1950s. These were a response to civil rights efforts. They served as reminders of oppression and slavery, reminders of knowing one’s place in society. They were tools of further oppression.
Monuments are not effective teaching tools for history. We teach about the rise of Hitler without preserving publicly displayed monuments to the man. To do so would be offensive to most. Imagine confronting by such a monument in daily routines such as rounding a traffic circle during the morning commute. We don’t allow such unsolicited, unwelcomed, painful reminders. To do so would be to inflict further trauma on the victims or their descendants. Most would considered it cruel.
That is exactly what we do, however, to the marginalized, non-white, non-dominant culture every day by continuing to honor individuals that engineered, or at least represent, a history of genocide and slavery. In fact, I can see how even the presence of my Caucasian face might serve as a reminder of the history of genocide, slavery, and continued oppression.
I think that is the truly honest, naked answer to why we don’t take down such monuments. To the victors go the spoils and the winner gets to write the history, right? We tell a white supremacist history and continue to hold the spoils in the form of wealth, opportunity, and access to clean natural resources. And we don’t want to let go of that advantage. That’s the ugly, honest answer we must acknowledge.
The irony is that we are not the victors. The war isn’t over. This society built on an economic model of extraction of natural resources from the earth often to the detriment of those living there, in the pursuit of ever an expanding economy only has one outcome—our eventual demise. We will all lose.
To truly tell our American history, learn and honor it, the story should be told through the eyes of the victims and oppressed, not the victors and their descendants. That is why we tell the story of WW II largely through preservation of concentration camps and museums such as the holocaust museum and not with monuments to Hitler and Mussolini.
Regarding monuments that represent the original sins of this country, I say tear them all down and erect monuments to those that fought for the victims of the original sins. Those heroes deserve public display which becomes a casual backdrop to the daily life of the average citizen. That’s how their heroism becomes the story we enact. The rest belong in curated museums for the purpose of education, not adulation.
And if you are offended by having to see the monument of a resistor of oppression on your daily rounding of a traffic circle, or walking the steps of a state capital, then you’ve got some serious explaining and work to do.
When the statues come down
Silenced voices lift up
No longer hearing the din of oppression
We live by the rising chorus of liberation
Removing constriction of shackles for some
Provides freedom for all
Caging ghosts of the victors
Frees spirits of victims
Reconciliation of sins
Provides opportunity for grace