This is the opening section of my essay in the New York Review of Books‘ NYR Daily on the statues debate. Read the full article on NYR Daily.
“We stand today at the national center to perform something like a national act—an act which is to go into history.”
So said the great nineteenth-century former slave and staunch abolitionist Frederick Douglass at the unveiling of the Emancipation Memorial in Lincoln Park, Washington, D.C., in 1876. “That we are here in peace today,” Douglass told a crowd of almost 25,000, many of them African-American, “is a compliment and a credit to American civilization, and a prophecy of still greater national enlightenment and progress in the future.”
The idea for the memorial had come originally from former slave Charlotte Scott, of Virginia, who wanted a monument in honor of Abraham Lincoln. She gave five dollars to begin a funding drive, and the monument was eventually paid for entirely by former slaves.
Almost a hundred and fifty years later, many African Americans feel differently about the memorial. In June, Black Lives Matter protesters attempted, unsuccessfully, to topple the statue. D.C. Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton vowed to introduce legislation to have the memorial removed. The Boston Art Commission unanimously resolved to take down a copy of the statue in Boston.
Some critics of the statue view Lincoln as a false friend of African Americans. Others see the statue itself as demeaning, with Lincoln represented as standing upright, while the free black man is on his knees. For defenders of the statue, on the other hand, to remove it is to erase a memorial paid for by former slaves and anointed by Douglass. It is to besmirch black history itself.
What is striking in this contemporary debate is that there is nothing new about it. It goes back to the very creation of the monument. Douglass, even in his dedication speech, expressed his ambivalence about Lincoln. “Abraham Lincoln was not,” he observed, “in the fullest sense of the word, either our man or our model. In his interests, in his associations, in his habits of thought, and in his prejudices, he was a white man.” He continued:
To protect, defend, and perpetuate slavery in the states where it existed, Abraham Lincoln was not less ready than any other President to draw the sword of the nation. He was ready to execute all the supposed guarantees of the United States Constitution in favor of the slave system anywhere inside the slave states. He was willing to pursue, recapture, and send back the fugitive slave to his master, and to suppress a slave rising for liberty, though his guilty master were already in arms against the Government.
And yet, he acknowledged, “while Abraham Lincoln saved for you a country, he delivered us from a bondage, according to Jefferson, one hour of which was worse than ages of the oppression your fathers rose in rebellion to oppose.”
Today’s controversies over statues of racists and slave owners have a more recent backstory, too. In March 2015, a South African activist named Chumani Maxwele smeared excrement on a statue of Cecil Rhodes at the University of Cape Town. So began the “Rhodes Must Fall” campaign. The following month, the university authorities removed the statue. Rhodes Must Fall became an international cause and popular Twitter hashtag. The campaign took root most notably in Oxford, Britain, where another statue of Rhodes had stood for over a century, above an entrance to Oriel College, to which he left £100,000 in his will.
A parallel campaign developed meanwhile against Confederate statues in the US. While there have long been campaigns against such memorials, the moves to take them down acquired a new intensity after the white nationalist rally in Charlottesville in 2017. That year, thirty-six Confederate monuments were removed. This year, amid the rekindled Black Lives Matter protests that erupted after the killing of George Floyd in Minnesota in May, another thirty at least have come down.
As the protests went global, demonstrators in Bristol, England, toppled a statue of a slave trader named Edward Colston and dumped it in the docks. That acted as a catalyst for the release of pent-up fury: the following day, in London, the statue of slave trader Robert Milligan was removed from outside the Museum of London Docklands by the public trust responsible for the site. Then protests erupted in Belgium, where statues of King Leopold II, under whose rule the Congo had been turned into a brutal slave camp in the late nineteenth century, were defaced and taken down. This wave of iconoclasm moved again back across the Atlantic, where not just Confederate memorials but statues of Columbus, Jefferson, Washington, and others were toppled.
At the heart of all this lie two fundamental questions: What do statues, and their removal, tell us about the past—and the present? And what do the campaigns against statues tell us about the struggle to confront racism?
Critics of the toppling campaigns condemn what they regard as the rewriting of history. After demands for the removal of a statue of Winston Churchill in Parliament Square, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson—himself a biographer of Churchill—tweeted: “We cannot now try to edit or censor our past. We cannot pretend to have a different history.” To remove statues would be “to lie about our history, and impoverish the education of generations to come,” he said.
The British-based American historian Christopher Phelps rejects such claims, arguing that removing statues is little different from the normal practice of history. “To reconsider, to recast, is the essence of historical practice,” he wrote in The Chronicle of Higher Education in January. “It follows that altering how we present the past through commemorative symbols is not ahistorical. It is akin to what historians do.” Removing statues “does not vitiate history,” he insisted; “on the contrary, it represents a more thorough coming to terms with the past and its legacies, a refusal to forget.”
Statues are rarely about history as such; they are about memory. That is, they are part of the process of shaping perceptions of history. That is why they have long been sites of contestation, and not just in the present.
Read the full essay on NYR Daily.