I don’t care about statues.
Well, let me clarify. I don’t care if municipalities decide to remove statues that have become undesirable or erect new sculptures of heroes they consider relevant and worthy. I do care about vandalism, and I care about the decision process of removal. But ultimately, I care about people. Like civilizations before us, each generation decides on its heroes to celebrate and commemorate during their brief window in history. The existence of these sculptures cannot change a single second of the life that person molded in bronze, marble, or plaster lived. Their deeds are etched in time more permanently than the lines in the stone carved in their likeness.
Over the last several years, especially after a white gunman killed nine Black churchgoers at historic Emanuel AME Church in 2015, intense conversations about the legitimacy of confederate statues have accelerated their removal across the nation. At times, shed blood speaks louder than words, and boycott threats encourage change more swiftly than altruistic conviction. Statues of Robert E Lee, Stonewall Jackson, Jefferson Davis, and others have been among the most scrutinized because of their role in preserving chattel slavery in this country. However, the efficacy of removing statues depends on the goal. To remove the prominent faces of that oppression from sight, it works wonders. To remove the present day vestiges of the slave system in America, it will do very little. That takes a different type of dedication.
As a kid, I loved visiting my Pop Pop in Washington DC. The Washington monument was particularly fascinating to me. It seemed so foreign yet undeniably important as we passed it in his forest green sedan. Unbeknownst to me, George Washington, America’s first president, was an enslaver for 56 years of his life and owned 123 people at Mount Vernon at the time of his death. Another founding father, Thomas Jefferson, owned over 600 men, women, and children. He even fathered at least six children with one enslaved woman, Sally Hemings. While he opined on independence and liberty, human beings at Monticello endured the lash and bore his enslaved offspring without a fraction of the equality he so eloquently penned for others. Their stolen labor provided the resources not only for Jefferson’s estate but also for the young emergent country it was part of. When a statue of our third president was recently removed from New York City Hall, where it had rested for 187 years, surveying what has now become a diverse chamber, I understand the chief reason why. But with thousands of roads, counties, cities, schools, parks, and regions named after slaveholders, slavery enablers, and slavery defenders and with thousands more named after Jim Crow era racists and segregationists where, and more importantly, HOW will it ever end?
One thing I enjoyed more than gazing at the Washington monument was visiting the district’s museums. They seemed always to offer stories untold, artifacts unseen, and voices unheard. They unapologetically told the rest of the story. Half-truths are whole lies. And people feel respected and valued when they are trusted with the truth. Here’s the truth: 41 of the 56 signers of the declaration of independence owned humans as property. Of the first 12 US presidents, 8 were slaveholders. They were also patriots whose contributions forged a democracy unlike any the world has seen. We must recognize both. We must teach both.
If America is to survive this reckoning and others to come, it must be dedicated to perfecting its founding ideals, documents, and subsequent amendments more than blind allegiance to the individuals who wrote them. It must commit to truth telling in ways previous Americans refused to. The deification of leaders, past or present, does not serve custodians of democracy well. It only makes the chasm wider when some choose to gloss over horrific human rights abuses considering them only a minor footnote written with the blood of other image-bearers. And it’s disingenuous to say that these men accomplished absolutely nothing of value because of it. We all commit acts that deserve condemnation while simultaneously producing that which is to be commended. These men were no different. With transparency comes trust, understanding, and appreciation, but generations of lies and denial about these characters and the history of this republic only fan the flames of discontent and disunity.
I don’t care about statues because they will never unite. That power is reserved for the truth.