By Aaron Wright ’21
I do not believe in the willful destruction of history, but I do believe that we should remove monuments that are clear symbols of hatred and racism and relocate them to the humble corners of museums where their history can be learned to ensure that it is not repeated. I am not solely in opposition to displaying symbols of brutality, but also in favor of implementing an actionable plan to ease the wounds of history, acknowledge them, and move forward into a more equitable and historically cognizant society.
Certain statues are not merely casts of stone, but visions and messages that convey to every passerby a false narrative—the narrative of the lost cause. Men such as Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson are publicly painted as heroes, fighting valiantly to protect the nation they love. Confederate generals, in reality, fought to continue the violent plunder of Black bodies for economic gain, not to ‘preserve the union.’ They fought not only in the name of the preservation of this institution—this machine that contorted and mangled and silenced Black bodies—but also in the name of expanding it beyond the borders of the Southern territories it inhabited. These men were not heroes, and they certainly were not true patriots who believed in the principles of equality and freedom; they were vessels of subjugation and violence. They should not be celebrated or bowed down to in public, but condemned instead. The statues of men like Lee and Jackson convey hatred and the arrogant crushing of humanity. To reduce these statues to anything less than what they are is to ignore history. To keep the statues up is to knowingly celebrate that history. Therefore I do not blame protesters for tearing down the searing artifacts of that history.
Those statues are not artifacts—objects of a different time trapped in amber—but a celebration of the structures of systemic racism and white supremacy that still envelop our institutions: the legal system, education system, and the affordable housing apparatus.
Let protestors express their rightful anger at these statues and all that they represent, and do not attempt to put them back up. Instead, put them in a museum, and use their figures and lives as an opportunity to further illuminate the realities of the last four centuries. Further, I do not condemn protesters for what they have done. They deserve to express this valid outpouring of grief, that’s built up and up, body on top of body, finally crashing down onto the pavement as the myth of a confederate hero cracks in two.
The removal of statues and symbols has occurred before: Germany’s removal of Third Reich Symbols and Italy’s decommissioning of statues glorifying Il Duce in the wake of the mass killings and concentration camps orchestrated by both European dictators. While traveling in Germany and living in Rome, I experienced the power of the monuments that remain: Il Palazzo della Civiltà Italiana, a project commissioned by Mussolini in 1942 as part of the redesign of a sprawling new neighborhood, and the Nuremberg grounds, where Hitler held his infamous Nuremberg rallies. Both Mussolini and Hitler leave behind false projections of power, leadership, and strength that are trapped inside each brick of their respective structures, an indelible image transported into the minds of passersby. Germany has condemned its legacy and implemented strict punishments for displaying swastikas.
What is shameful, to say the least, is that the United States has not yet addressed its own violent and hateful past. America has allowed lies and myths to dominate our collective understanding of the civil war and its true heroes.
Hitler instigated and executed the murder of six million Jews, and Mussolini murdered upwards of 400,000, in addition to the bodies left behind in the wake of his imperial campaign for a share of North Africa. Yet, we turn a blind eye to the murder of tens of millions of Africans, and later, Americans. After the culture was wrung from their bodies, falling alongside the nearly two million bodies of Africans who died on the treacherous journey called the Middle Passage, tens of millions more humans were killed in the intense heat of Caribbean plantations, weighed down by the oppression of institutional racism and the physical burdens they were forced to carry. We celebrate their captors and their torturers with these statues, and we should not. We must grapple with this history and recognize its implications.
In order to do so, I propose that we establish a federally funded national commission to remove Confederate statues across the country and relocate them to museums. This commission must be explicitly informed not to destroy these statues, but if protesters attempt to destroy some of them, ask yourself if that would be worse than what has been inflicted upon Black Americans. Simultaneously, a commission led by Black artists, architects, and historians should decide what to replace these statues with. We could use these newly emptied spaces to celebrate Black martyrs, artists, poets, activists, and politicians. We can celebrate the Black leaders of history such as Rosa Parks and James Baldwin, but we can also celebrate the Black leaders living and breathing and fighting for racial justice alongside us today, such as Ta-Nehisi Coates, who writes beautifully and bravely, and Deray Mckesson, who speaks truth to power every day.
Leaving these statues as they are is further injury. Putting a contextualizing plaque below these statues is not enough. We should not erase history, but rather acknowledge it and place it where it can add to a collective truth, not enable willful ignorance. We must remove these symbols of hate, in every form they come, and use them as learning experiences for generations that have not yet come into consciousness, and all posterity.