The Statues: Let's Talk About It
As many statues and monuments around the world have received growing attention as a part of the Black Lives Matter movement, there has been an outpour of media coverage surrounding the conversation. Several public statues depicting the lives and accomplishments of confederate leaders, slave owners, or otherwise known white supremacists have come under the scrutiny of protestors, many of which call for their removal, destruction, or relocation. This conversation is one which surrounds the question of how our systems inform our culture, and in turn, how our culture forms our beliefs.
It can be a difficult conversation to have; especially if you have friends or family members who have already decided that the thoughts and feelings of BIPOC are not enough to convince them (and let's be clear, that should be enough) . If this is the case, you may find yourself wrestling with a common talking point: dismantling statues is an attempt to erase history.
To that, my first instinct is to respond like: when's the last time you think the Germans forgot about Hitler because there aren’t statues of him scattered throughout Berlin? In other words, we don’t use statues as a record of history. On the contrary, monuments that portray a given historical figure as heroic are actually making an explicit moral statement about history and how that person fits into our collective past. We are asked to honor their legacy and accomplishments.
In this way, statutes are more like pieces of art, and artwork always has something to say to its audience. So what exactly does a giant statue of Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, or Jefferson Davis in the middle of a town square “saying” and to whom?
The question isn’t whether or not we can acknowledge the achievements of historically influential white supremacists (that’s what museums and history books are for!). Rather, it’s within the strategic omittance of their horrendous actions that the problem lies. By posing racist historical figures in public squares with plaques that highlight their “heroic” accomplishments and omit their cruelty, the art itself asks us to erase a second, much darker American history. It is a statement piece that welcomes us to participate in the dismissal of historic oppression and mass genocide to which these men were complicit.
This statement often rings true in both content and intent; especially in the case of Confederate monuments. After the Civil War ended with the Confederacy surrendering to the Union, there was a great effort by Southern socialites and historians to preserve the Confederate perspective of events. These efforts culminated in an intellectual movement called “The Lost Cause”, which sought to frame slavery as a benevolent institution separate from the purpose of the war. Specifically, The United Daughters of the Confederacy were behind many of the confederate monuments you now see sprinkled across the south. Along with erecting statues, the UDC also had made concerted efforts to control the content of school textbooks and libraries in the south. If there has been any movement to rewrite American history, none have been quite as sustained and far-reaching as the efforts of the Lost Cause.
Lastly, as I mentioned: we have to consider the audience. Who is this public statue for? (The public, duh!) And so, if a statue is meant to serve as a constant reminder to the collective “public” of our past, present, and future, then it makes the most sense to use artwork of someone or something that is most indicative of our philosophical, moral, and cultural through-lines in state/local history. But the key word here is “our”. Our values. Our ideals. Not just white people.
Ask yourself or your friends these debatable questions to start healthy conversations:
What is the purpose of a statue/monument?
When should we consider removing/relocating a public display?
Can we pass moral judgements on historical figures?
Why is it important that we recognize white supremacy in symbolism and artwork?
What kind of public displays should replace the ones that are being removed?
The statues in question:
More on the “Lost Cause”:
We will be starting an online forum soon where we hope to create a safe place for meaningful conversation.
We will be announcing a GIVE AWAY. Follow our Instagram for updates on that.
Our BLM Memorial Art Exhibit is coming up later in the year and I encourage you to submit your art of any medium or even photography. Again, all info is on our Instagram.