On Statues

Statue4

 

There are certainly some persons who deserve to be remembered more than others, but does anyone deserve a statue molded in their likeness? Should any man or woman be memorialized by a larger than life image?

First hearing by word of mouth of the controversy in Charlottesville, Virginia last Sunday, it was hard to be surprised. There have been many acts of terrorism in the news lately, and one more senseless act added to the numbness. Terrible, egregious, disgusting, inhuman, evil… these words may be accurate descriptors, but they often fall short of empathy and feeling. It’s one thing to describe an incident, and it’s another to live it.

Later that night after having some time to reflect on the incident, a discussion with a friend commenced over a game of pool. What motivated the event? Why now? Is our society in regression or experiencing growing pains?

Then came the discussions of this week. Should memorials to rebels and slave owners be maintained? Historical figures were compared, and the differing perspectives on their memorials were illuminated. Oppressive or defensive? Worthless or worthy? Hate or heritage?

During another brief personal discussion I told colleagues I could “…understand both sides…” and didn’t want to condone “…censoring history…”. “Understand” was inaccurate, and “both sides” was a poor choice of words. Some emotion brewed in a friend’s face as he asked if a memorial to Hitler would be appropriate? The question was rhetorical, but thoughts comparing Confederate leaders to Nazi leaders immediately came to mind… Do these men deserve to be memorialized?

Is there enough goodness in those Southern soldiers that is worth remembering? Or, does the obvious evil that these soldiers died defending rule out a position of honor for their statues? Is felling a Confederate leader’s memorial ignoring history, or would destroying theses statues be an acknowledgment of past crimes? It’s clear that history often, if not always, remains up for interpretation.

Another reality is that honorable intentions do not right injustices. Every human seems more dynamic than people are willing to admit, and stereotypes or generalizations often cloud the complexity of a life. However, are there things that must not be condoned, even if done by a generally good man?

The most accurate interpretations of the integrity of the men who’s statues are being debated should be left up to those honest individuals willing to search historical records and primary sources for the facts. That is not the subject here. The more relevant issue seems to be one of putting the present into historical context.

The men memorialized by these statues lived through events that changed the course of history. The nation that was split in two reunited, but were wrongs righted? Were all hurts healed?

Roughly 8 years after the inauguration of President Obama…

  • nearly 50 years after the death of Dr. King…
  • approximately 70 years after Robinson first swung a major league bat…
  • around 114 years after W. E. B. Du Bois published The Souls of Black Folk and 116 years after Booker T. Washington published Up From Slavery
  • something like 154 years after the formation of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry…
  • 160 years since the Supreme Court’s decision on Dred Scott v. Sanford…
  • 184 years after the death of William Wilberforce and the subsequent abolition of slavery in the British Empire…
  • nearly 200 years since the birth of Frederick Douglass…
  • thereabouts 243 years after General George Washington halted the recruitment of black soldiers for service in the Continental Army…
  • 228 years after the publication of Olaudah Equiano’s autobiography…
  • around 398 years since the first Africans were enslaved on American soil in Jamestown…
  • more or less than 516 years after Saint-Domingue (Santo Domingo) became an international slave port…
  • and circa 525 years since Columbus planted the seeds of European colonialism in the Caribbean – what would prove to be a tragic event for millions of indigenous people in Africa and the West…

…these American lands are still reeling over past sins – sins that cannot be made right.

While there is no way to right the wrongs of the past, there is hope in the present.

  • First, those who have ancestors that were responsible for the injustices of genocide, slavery, or other acts of racist oppression and/or those who have benefited from systemic social hierarchies reinforced by a history of white-European colonialism, would do well to seek recognition of how evils of the past have influenced their current circumstances. Besides an awareness of the history of these injustices and their direct or indirect effects on the present, regret for the racially motivated decisions of the past would benefit current societal relationships. A sense of “white guilt” is not something people need to be ashamed of. Feelings of remorse for generational transgressions do not necessitate self-hatred or despise for one’s own skin color. Descendants of slavers and people who benefited from slavery have the right to feel guilty for the sins their ancestors committed, condoned, and/or tolerated.  This guilt is not something to fear or be ashamed of but something to act on. Shame can often feel like self-loathing, but guilt can feel more like catalyst for positive change. “White guilt” can simply be a lesson from history and a motivation for creating or maintaining more just societies. In that context, “white guilt” is not holding oneself individually responsible for the crimes of another individual. Rather, it is an individual confession of past crimes that are relevant due to their direct or indirect effects on the present. One could argue that as living creatures, mammals, or in the very least as human beings, we are all one human family, and any society interested in social justice, human rights, and general civility will take on a communal responsibility to never repeat the sin of slavery.

Furthermore, there is no shame in discouraging voluntary segregation or prejudice, even if one’s blood-line may have systematically oppressed the ancestors of another ethnicity or people-group, and vice-versa.

  • Feeling fear of unknowns at the site of a dinner party crowd of different cultures or skin tones can actually incite an urge to join their company rather than remain in the comfortable circle of more predictable commonplace.
  • Discussions of injustice driven by petty things such as skin color, wealth, or greed need not be constantly avoided but rather should be addressed with humility, authenticity, and caution – especially regarding an experience a person could not understand unless she or he took on the appearance, heritage, environment, and event of the one who lived it.
  • Having affections for an individual of a skin color quite different from one’s own may feel odd to some (especially if one grew up learning that such a feeling should feel odd), but it should not feel wrong simply for sake of appearance or for avoidance of surface-level judgments. If such feelings and affections spark a romantic relationship, people can find solace in the long history of many joyful couples who have ignored skin color as a deal-breaker for their romantic relationships.

On statues, carved or modeled – molded or assembled, they are lifeless things meant to represent or honor something greater. What benefit do these motionless creations have to offer besides reminders of higher ideals and heroic deeds? At best, statues are but a caricature of the people they are meant to emulate. Far from the beating hearts and original minds of the persons they represent, these monuments are cold giants that use size and art to vainly seek to make up for whatever piece of humanity that was lost.

This humanity is not flawlessly set as sinner against saint or hero versus villain. As much as people aspire to glorious perfection, it has yet to be reached by any of the finite creatures that populate this planet. Rather, each memorial should be purposed to bring out the best of this human condition while acknowledging the truth of the times which the figure represents.

An effective memorial should not encourage people to wallow in its presence or rage against its existence but carry on with their lives, taking with them a memory that will spark to light part of what it means to be truly human. There has been far to much tragedy in this world already. While history must be remembered for what it was, humanity needs not to abide memorials that recall and breed division in the present.

Statues should be constructed to promote a sense of righteous resolve, connectedness, and/or hope.  History has afforded us many examples of individuals and events, flawed, but resulting in courageously righteous action. Uplift that which will uplift. If statues fail to meet this criteria, history can continue to be honestly maintained while the figure is respectfully and democratically removed from a place of honor or, disrespectfully, torn down.

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