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A popular argument for preserving Confederate monuments is that one “can’t change history.” This notion muddles two distinct ways that we use the word “history.” “History” can mean something like “the past,” and it is certainly true that we cannot go back and change the outcome of an election or a strike. But “history” also means the narratives we develop about these events—what scholars call “historiography”—and these of course change frequently, as they are in a constant state of evolution. Public memorials exist at an uneasy intersection of these two ways of understanding history. Their solid material form suggests that they represent an unalterable fact about the past, while the circumstances of their erection, design, and placement are always rhetorical, aiming to enshrine a particular story about the past. Insisting that statues remain eternally in their present location and original context is akin to demanding that we abandon the work of revising and reimagining our understanding of the past.
The ‘public’ in ‘public art’ is less like ‘public goods’ than it is like ‘public drunkenness.’
The Southern Poverty Law Center recently produced a remarkable document that details where and when memorials to the Confederacy were erected across the United States. It is not surprising that these memorials are concentrated in the South, with some outliers beyond the borders of the former Confederate States of America. It is, perhaps, surprising to see how recently many of these memorials were built, and how closely their appearance correlates to moments of widespread white resistance to civil rights progress. Their cultural reach is not limited to the South, though. Mirroring the ways in which many universities in the abolitionist North profited enormously from slavery—including Harvard, Yale, and Brown—it turns out that the majority of Confederate monuments were manufactured by foundries in the North, so there were Yankee businesses that profited considerably from the drive to keep alive the “lost cause” of the Confederacy.
A pattern of northern profiteering from the South’s lost cause narrative is hardly the only reason, though, that those of us who live in towns free of Confederate memorials should resist rushing to congratulate ourselves on the goodness of our chosen communities. Instead, conflicts in New Orleans, Charlottesville, and elsewhere should induce us to think more critically about the narratives of public history that all of our monuments produce. By contending that the removal of Confederate monuments cannot conclude our considerations of how statues tell stories about race in the United States, I do not mean to argue for preserving Confederate statues where and as they are. I applaud the removal of statues in Durham, Baltimore, and New Orleans, and look forward to more news of this kind. But to limit critical thinking about statues to Confederate removals would be to miss an opportunity to engage with the subtler forms of racism that are memorialized everywhere in the nation, not just the South.
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The public history that statues produce is often the product of private interests. The bulk of Confederate monuments, for example, was funded not by municipal governments or even local citizens but rather by the United Daughters of the Confederacy, which offered during the rise of the civil rights movement to pay for a monument in any town willing to host one. In other words, there was never a time that these monuments were not political. This serves as a reminder that the word “public” in the phrase “public art” has a different valence than it does in constructions such as “public school,” or “public works.” Public art does not necessarily represent something a government does for the good of its citizens; rarely so, in fact. Instead, it is art that happens to inhabit a public space, so the “public” in “public art” or “public history” actually functions more like the way it does in phrases such as “public drunkenness,” or “public nudity.”
Monuments to Columbus were funded by Italian American organizations to stand as testament to the fact that Italians had always been integral to (white) America.
In our current political moment, defenders of Confederate monuments have sought to direct attention away from the racist origins of these statues by countering with a series of “what about” arguments, pointing out that men such as Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, and Christopher Columbus could, if the iconoclastic tide is not stopped, soon fall. Rather than respond to this provocation with the intended shock, however, it can provide a useful opportunity to reflect on how seemingly race-neutral public monuments often in fact stake territory in debates over racial identity and whiteness.
While in our present day many object to the continued celebration of Columbus because he was the herald of genocide and of the theft of two continents, celebrations of Columbus were once controversial for a very different reason. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Columbus was a figure of concern for some because he was not seen as being white enough. Many U.S. monuments to Columbus—including the most famous one, located in Manhattan’s Columbus Circle—were funded by Italian American organizations to stand as testament to the fact that Italians had always been integral to (white) America. Many disagreed with this assessment. In 1887 Eben Horsford, philanthropist, Harvard chemistry professor, and inventor of modern baking powder, unveiled a statue of Leif Erikson in the median of Boston’s Commonwealth Avenue at Charlesgate East, at the time some of Boston’s toniest real estate. This statue was intended to illustrate Horsford’s now-discredited notion that the Vinland of Viking history referred to a landing place in nearby Cambridge. Horsford’s Viking research and monuments were intended to support the argument that the Aryan Leif Erikson had discovered the Americas long before the Italian, Catholic Columbus had made his voyage. Erikson now stares intently into a nearby on-ramp for Storrow Drive, but he remains. The statue is a monument to a brave explorer, but it is also a monument to a wealthy man who could not bear the thought of crediting the discovery of America to a man with darker skin than his own. This effort to supplant Columbus was not an isolated incident in Boston; multiple castings of Horsford’s Erikson were made, and some landed in the Midwest, where monuments celebrating Erikson proliferated, stoked by regional Scandinavian pride. This Erikson frenzy continued well into the twentieth century, with a gift in 1930 “from the people of the United States,” to Iceland of a statue of Erikson that stands on a prominent hill in Reykjavik and bears the inscription: “Leifr Eiricsson. Son of Iceland. Discoverer of Vinland. The United States of America to the People of Iceland on the One Thousandth Anniversary of the Althing A D 1930.”
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Along with Confederate and Viking monuments, the years following the Civil War witnessed the creation of a number of monuments to the Puritans, as the newly reunited United States sought for a vocabulary of shared founding. Against what one might expect, the city of Boston, so intimately associated with Puritanism, has more statues of antagonists of the city’s Puritan founders than of those founders themselves, indicating a squeamishness with some aspects of the Puritan legacy. We have, for instance, a statue of John Winthrop, one of the founders of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, that was originally in a prominent location in old Scollay Square (now Government Center). Because of construction, however, it was downgraded to standing outside of the First Church of Boston’s preschool, looking for all the world as if he is on a timeout. Meanwhile, Anne Hutchinson, who bedeviled Puritan ministers and magistrates during the Antinomian Controversy, occupies a prominent spot on the State House lawn. And her compatriot, Mary Dyer, who was hanged by the Massachusetts Bay Colony for professing her Quaker faith, also enjoys a spot on the State House lawn, just across Beacon Street from the famous Robert Gould Shaw memorial by artist Augustus Saint-Gaudens.
To limit our critique to Confederate statues misses the opportunity to engage with forms of racism memorialized all over the United States.
As Erika Doss detailed, Puritan statues elsewhere in Massachusetts faced similar indignities. A statue in Springfield, erected by descendants of Deacon Samuel Chapin, was dedicated in 1887. The Chapin family commissioned Augustus Saint-Gaudens to produce this statue of their forebear, but Saint-Gaudens played up the forbidding features of the figure to such a cartoonish degree that it possesses an almost infernal quality. After repeated incidents of vandalism, the statue was moved from a busy and crowded spot in the heart of Springfield to a more remote location near the city’s new art museum. The statue’s high drama, though, was perceived so praisingly by those outside of Massachusetts that dozens of copies were made and installed elsewhere in the United States.
Most monuments of Puritans, Columbus, and Confederate soldiers were erected as part of a broader national phenomenon of “statue mania.” As Doss explains in Memorial Mania, “statue mania erupted in the United States from the 1870s to the 1920s” because public monuments offered a way for post–Civil War America to “reimagine what Benedict Anderson terms the ‘affective bonds of nationalism.’” Massachusetts’s intimacy with Puritanism was probably the same thing that prevented it from erecting many monuments to Puritans during this period: the commonwealth’s knowledge of Puritanism was too specific to be generalized for a project of building national identity. At the same time, though, outside of Boston the figure of the Puritan offered many Americans the fantasy of a single, coherent, and indisputably European point of national origin. Just as Confederate statues offered some a way to speak of both loss and racial identity, statues of a generic Puritan figure offer a way to reimagine and perform the affective bonds of a shared white nationalism.
I am happy to see Confederate statues coming down in places where they cause hurt to people who have to pass them every day. The moment of their removal also offers a chance to reimagine the meaning of the statues that do remain. Rather than treat public statuary as a form of secular canonization, we would do better to treat each statue as an invitation to think critically about the story it tells about a past, the work it does in the present, and the impact it has on the future.
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How would I know / when I’m empty and quiet like breath?
Historian Gerald Horne has developed a grand theory of U.S. history as a series of devastating backlashes to progress—right down to the present day.
Reflecting on three monumental works of modernism—James Joyce’s Ulysses, T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, and Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus—a hundred years on.