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Taking down statues isn't erasing history—it's making history, literally

In a generation or two, kids in history class will be reading about this time period we're living through now. They'll learn about a global uprisings for racial justice in the middle of a pandemic, they'll hear about the specific incidents that sent that spark into a flame, and they'll analyze the significance of the movement to remove statues and monuments that celebrate white supremacy or honor problematic individuals.

Some people claim that removing statues erases history, but the truth is the exact opposite. The entire reason for their removal is that people are finally becoming aware of history that had been erased, through whitewashed history books and glaring omissions in the heroic stories we tell. As a result, people are making history by taking down monuments that symbolize historic erasure.

The history of a nation is essentially the story of its people, and the removal of statues by the people is as much a part of the American story as the individuals and events they were created to honor. It's hard to see in the moment, but this kind of thing is exactly how history is created. In the same way that we middle-aged folks learned about the Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam War, history students will learn about the history being made now with this movement.


In addition, the idea that removing statues erases history is nonsensical on its face. The fact is we don't learn or study history through statues or monuments. We study history through books, primary documents, first-hand accounts and other documentation. There are no statues of Hitler in Germany, and no one claims that not having them erases the history of the Holocaust. And there are plenty of historical figures we've all learned about who don't have statues erected of them.

A statue is not a history lesson; it's a way of honoring someone. The same goes with naming schools or roads or places after someone. It seems to be long past time to seriously question how and why we venerate historical individuals in general, especially since statues beyond the more clear-cut confederacy figures have begun coming down as well.

In recent weeks, people have toppled statues of genocidal explorer, Christopher Columbus, and founding father and former president Thomas Jefferson, who not only wrote the Declaration of Independence but also raped an enslaved Black woman and didn't free the children he fathered with her until he died. This week, a statue of Teddy Roosevelt in front of a New York museum is being taken down by the museum itself—not so much due to issues with Roosevelt himself, but because the statue has him atop a horse with a Native American man and a Black man flanking him on the ground behind him on either side. (Roosevelt's great-grandson, Theodore Roosevelt IV agreed with the museum's decision, for what it's worth.)

Of course, there's a lot of gray area here. "Where does it end?" and "How far do we go with this?" are questions we all have to grapple with.

In addition to the already established purpose of confederate monuments erected to reinforce white supremacy, we need to examine why we put up statues of people in general. The assumed purpose of a statue of someone displayed in public is veneration and honor. But what impact does that have?

Protesters in Portland, Oregon recently toppled a Jefferson statue in front of Jefferson High School. Rather than ask whether the statue should stay, let's ask why it's there in the first place. Does it even makes sense to honor Jefferson by naming a school in Oregon after him, when Oregon didn't even become a state until 30 years after Jefferson died? What's the purpose there, and what's the impact, especially on students Jefferson would have been cool with enslaving if they'd lived at the same time? Does honoring a figure like Thomas Jefferson by naming a school after him prompt us to gloss over the horrific aspects of who he was?

And what's the impact of removing the name? Would students at Jefferson High School never learn the history of Jefferson if it weren't for their school being named after him? Of course not. Was my history education lacking because I went to a high school called North Central and not the name of a historical figure? Of course not. Is there a better way of naming schools, buildings, roads etc. than pseudo-idol-worshiping historical figures? Undoubtedly.

I would argue that very few historical individuals are unproblematic enough to have statues of them displayed in public—especially in a nation whose history is steeped in white supremacy. Removing public figures from prominent places of honor and reverence allows us to sit with the full truth of who people were and are, to see them in their full history. With Jefferson, for example, it is possible to hold two truths at once—that he was a brilliant thinker whose powerful words pushed humanity forward in some important respects, and that he was also a rapist who kept his own children enslaved during his lifetime. But it's hard to balance those truths when we see his face everywhere in places of honor—statues, portraits, namesakes, and even our currency. We can't reconcile those two equally important truths when we constantly see him being honored and celebrated.

If we truly want to not erase history, we need to rethink statues and namesakes altogether. The over-honoring of historical individuals doesn't actually help us learn more about their history; it prompts us to elevate their positive contributions and brush aside their problematic characteristics. While focusing more on people's positives than negatives sounds nice in theory, that doesn't work in a country where the positives of people in power have always directly benefited an entire race of people while their negatives hurt entire races of people.

That's the nature of the history of our nation, whether we choose to acknowledge it or not. And I hope our kids learn that truth more fully when they learn why people in our generation chose to topple statues.

This article originally appeared on 04.15.19


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