A few months ago I visited the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia. I remember walking through the Civil Rights exhibit listening to audio from important leaders and reading about monumental court cases that would change the course of history forever. That was the first time I ever saw a Ku Klux Klan uniform in person. I stopped frozen in both fear and shock. I didn’t understand why I was afraid of something that was behind glass and inanimate. What I often read in history books or watched in documentary films had now become a reality. An idea once so distant, now felt so close. One I couldn’t avoid. Even still I wondered why a part of history, that was both so terrifying and filled with hatred, was displayed in a museum. What purpose did it serve?
The question of whether we should commemorate all aspects of history has become more prevalent with the events that transpired in Charlottesville. Protesters for the preservation of the Robert E. Lee statue sparked debate throughout the entire country about maintaining monuments that praise past leaders of America. However, this has also been met with resistance because removing these statues, according to others, may also mean removing parts of history. History that, while filled with both good and bad, needs to be remembered.
So, is a statue just a statue? This question does not have one answer. On one hand, we often glorify specific individuals from our nation’s history through monuments. Large statues are built to stand the test of time. We visit places like Washington D.C. to remember our history and marvel at presidents from our country’s founding. Memorials like the Lincoln Memorial and the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial stand as promises to freedom and equality. There are other commemorative structures such as the Washington Monument and the Jefferson Memorial honoring people who held patriotic views and stood up for values like independence. Even these leaders who held complex lives, have stories written in our nation’s history. Some would say it would be a grave mistake to forget them. On the other hand, there are also those who are deeply saddened and angered by these monuments. For them it is not a matter of keeping history alive, rather it is an issue of praising racism and discrimination. Remembering slavery, for example, could be triggering. Some people purposefully choose not to remember the pain that their ancestors went through or the racial discrimination they had to endure. These voices should not be neglected either. Thus, the fight to strike a balance between these two groups of people is imperative.
When watching the events surrounding the discussion of Confederate statues, I couldn’t help but think about Paul Farber’s Introduction to Public History course which I took last spring. We discussed the preservation of history because of its importance to the artist and the spectator. We also talked about the ways history is not simply what we read in textbooks, but it is rooted in discussions with our families, artifacts, oral histories, museums and even monuments. This in no way undermines the need to take down monuments that hold hateful connotations. Rather it is simply a case to say that for some people seeing these monuments is not a glorification of the past, rather a remembrance of it. One of the most important things we discussed is the need to have more monuments that help to honor and remember the lives of enslaved people. For instance, The Bench by the Road Project, a project by the Toni Morrison Society, is an example of this. A literal bench was built to remember the harsh realities of slavery. However, it is also a symbol of determination and resilience. Thus, the bench as a memorial is not only a harsh reality of the past but also a symbol of hope.
For those who would undoubtedly agree to take down all Confederate statues, I would also ask about other structures and things that should be removed. What about the names of streets or schools named after people in our nation’s history who held values contrary to the progression of society today? And, for those who would say that removing these statues means removing history, I would challenge them as well. What is being removed in this instance is not history itself but the visual representation of history. Thus, for me this issue is nothing short of complex. While I never want to relive the history of the past, it would be a grave mistake to forget it. Seeing the Ku Klux Klan uniform that day was just a reminder of how I had become numb to many devastating parts of the past.
There can perhaps be ways to preserve history without glorifying it. One way to do that is to collect the statues being taken down, and store them in a museum of their own. However, another path, and one I believe is most beneficial, is to promote more artists to create monuments that honor marginalized communities. These monuments, told from the perspective of marginalized communities, can give voice to those who are typically unheard. It allows them to tell their stories the way they want to.
Regardless of whether any of these approaches are taken, when looking at history it is important to see both the good and the bad. If we are to take down statues there needs to be other ways to remember these dark moments from our past.