When the statue of Iraqi despot Saddam Hussein was toppled in 2003, it was easy to join the chorus of cheers. He was a repressive tyrant who killed an estimated 250,000 of his own people. Easy, too, was the destruction of statues of Communist dictator Joseph Stalin, responsible for the deaths of millions of Russians during his cruel Soviet regime.
Here in the United States, some statues are easy calls for removal. Public displays of Confederate generals, political leaders and other so-called heroes of the “War Between The States” improperly honor those who, in taking arms against their country, were committing acts of treason. Hailed in Dixie for their military prowess and political sagacity, these slave owners and champions of the perceived right to buy and sell other human beings brought about more American deaths than those who perished in World Wars I and II and the Vietnam War combined.
But what seems clear is that decisions for removal must be made on a case-by-case basis, with some statues coming down and others remaining but being accompanied by educational material. These decisions must not be rushed into. They must become opportunities for teachable moments. Sometimes contextualizing is better than destroying. George Washington, for example, owner of a hundred slaves, left instructions that they be freed after his death. (Shamefully, wife Martha Custis Washington, who had inherited her own slaves, didn’t follow suit.) Should we take down all monuments to the nation’s first President? I think not. Without his command of the Continental army, we might not have won independence from England. Without his coming out of retirement to serve as the nation’s first President, our country might not have survived its early years. Without his refusing to serve a third term, we might not have learned the imperatives of peaceful transition of power. Let’s teach our children about the whole man, his accomplishments and his shortcomings.
Not all the decisions are easy. While I’m quite comfortable keeping Ulysses S. Grant, I haven’t resolved whether Thomas Jefferson should be removed from the Memorial that bears his name to a museum setting, replacing his personage with symbols of the Founding Fathers’ documents memorializing the freedoms promised to all. The recent discussion of whether to take down Cyrus Dallin’s sculpture “Appeal to the Great Spirit” on the front lawn of Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts is also complicated. Joseph Zordan, Native American (Anishinaabe) and art historian, writes that the equestrian statue intends to show indigenous people as inferior and perpetuates the stereotype of Native Americans as a doomed nation. Most people whom I have asked about that sculpture see it instead as one reflecting the nobility and humanity of the subject. Why not keep the statue but install educational plaques to contextualize it?
We are at an inflection point, and there is no roadmap. How far do we go? Renaming cities and streets? There are more questions than answers, not least of which is how should such decisions be made, and who should make them? Should the views of long-subordinated subjects represented in a particular work of art be dispositive? Should all public displays of statues, even those we celebrate as heroes today, be taken down or amended with qualifying plaques as our sensibilities evolve? Without clear-eyed historical analysis and public dialogue, how will we learn the facts behind the myths? And, without all the facts, how can we take the necessary steps toward reconciliation and move forward? This should be the work of our time.
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