By Phoebe Weinstein ’22
There are two contrasting arguments surrounding this question: (1) we must remove these cultural landmarks from our society, and (2) we must preserve and recognize the nation’s history.
Consider the phrase “to put something on a pedestal.” Most literally, this refers to a statue or physical monument. More generally, however, the concept applies to anything that is glorified, saluted, and promoted—often blindly. Both literally and figuratively, the phrase is relevant to the question at hand. The arguments suggested in the paragraph above are both necessary to consider; we, as a society, must work to achieve a balance between the two.
Our history—and often even English— curricula are filled with narratives of the white citizen and the white colonizer. The average American child leaves that classroom, in which they are usually taught the same one-sided story of this nation, and walks home past monuments of the same character. They pay for gum at a kiosk with bills showing the same faces and read novels guided by the same perspectives.
Our school systems reinforce that knowing one singular narrative and one way of speaking and writing are the pinnacles of academic competence. Our society then reinscribes this by literally putting brutal colonizers, people who enslaved others, and Confederate leaders on pedestals throughout our parks and outside our libraries, museums, and government buildings.
In America, to sugarcoat history is to whitewash it. Here lies the balance of the two arguments: we must not overlook the pain, trauma, and failures of the past, but neither can or should we salute, promote, or glorify the ugliest elements of that past.
Suggesting, for example, the removal of the Christopher Columbus statue in Manhattan’s Columbus Circle is not to argue for censorship of learning about Christopher Columbus. In fact, herein lay opportunities to learn and recognize more American history: the very island upon which the statue stands was once called Mannahatta, or “land of many hills” by the Lenni Lenape people before brutal colonization. The cyclical history that Columbus Circle promotes is dangerous and one-sided. We cannot learn that “in 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue” without learning about his less glorious mass genocide. Yet he is literally elevated upon a pedestal on the stolen land of a people he sought to eliminate.
To diversify our curricula is to recognize our history as well. Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a famous piece of American literature and often referenced for learning about slavery. Yet Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs are often overlooked in our classrooms. Later works by Black authors are side-stepped for another reading of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter or F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Admittedly, both are impressive pieces of literature. You may scoff at the idea of not prioritizing such reading in school. So I ask you: why do we prioritize those works? Why do you consider them necessary? There are plenty of books by Black authors of the same caliber. Perhaps you think to yourself, well, we must learn about our American history, and those are landmarks of such. However, those books are landmarks of one singular American narrative. Black history is just as much American history as that of F. Scott Fitzgerald, yet we only really learn about one in-depth.
Furthermore, if asked, many Americans would probably adamantly defend “Modern English” as the single acceptable American linguistic standard for schools; however, “Modern English” (also known as “Shakespearean English”) is an English dialect that originated in Britain. Therefore, African-American vernacular English (AAVE) is arguably more directly relevant to and ingrained in American history than Shakespeare. The question of removing a few of the many pieces of literature that reflect similar white perspectives—American or European—in favor of other Black works should be simple to answer.
We should put neither the literal monuments of violence nor a singular educational narrative on pedestals. The removal of statues that laud genocide and oppression must be supported with the additions of Black history and literature in our classrooms, which may subsequently result in the removal of other pieces of white literature. We are not only teaching one perspective of American history, but also exemplifying the systemic racism in our society. As it stands, we are taught one perspective of American history, and we praise, in our choice of monuments, its underlying violence and oppression.
The “removal” of problematic representations is not done with the intention of abolishing the conversation. Rather, academics must work harder to incorporate a more well-rounded curriculum for students. City planners must celebrate the legacies of those who truly fought for American freedoms and not those who diminished them.
This extends to other forms of media; the Disney adaption of Peter Pan is a glaring reminder of our youthful ignorance. Its offensive portrayal and stereotyping of Native Americans is detrimental to progressive advancement. This type of portrayal should not be shown to impressionable children, especially when our school systems fail to properly educate their students on Native American history. So, in the same sense, what must be removed should give way for something more. Disney’s past failures must be remembered and recognized. In turn, this should inspire projects such as staff training about anti-racism and movements to more accurately and respectfully represent their diverse audiences.
Finally, we must decolonize our society; if we can remove relics of racism and violence from our parks and government buildings, embrace the vicissitudes of syntax and diction found amidst America’s cultures and celebrate the versatility and nuance of language within our schools, and diverge from the Euro-centric expectations of our society, we will be taking a big step toward becoming an actively anti-racist nation.
I hope that one day, American children will learn full, diverse history lessons reinforced by the landmarks, cultures, and media around them. De-emphasizing a singular white perspective and no longer putting racist history on a pedestal is the only way to make room for more diverse representations of our heritage and an actively anti-racist nation and society.