I wasn’t originally planning on returning to the Confederate monuments/history wars issue so soon, but it’s the gift that keeps on giving for a blogger, and the last day or so has been filled with new developments.
Oddly, I’m going to tack positive today – despite the continuation of attempts at vandalism and mob violence (as took place in Lafayette Park, right across from the White House, last night); despite the recent example of both vandalism and rank stupidity in Philadelphia; despite the ongoing pigheadedness and possibly worse of the stand-patters, who seem to believe that removing memorials on public grounds even to the vilest racists always amounts to an “erasure of history”; and despite the virtual certainty of more of all of the above to come.
I’m feeling optimistic today because my beloved native New York City, and an institution that gave me some of my most terrific childhood memories, has just pointed the way toward a genuinely adult way to handle these contoversies.
As you might have read, the City’s American Museum of Natural History has just decided to take down the statue of Theodore Roosevelt that’s stood in front of its Fifth Avenue entrance since 1940. The rationale – flanking the mounted T.R. are statues of a native American and an African warrior whose depiction on foot supposedly symbolizes white supremacy and imperialism.
During all my years living in and around Manhattan, I never regarded the statue as a symbol of anything except the 26th President’s well known egotism and conspicuous lionization of “the strenuous life,” as well as of the central role played by his family in establishing the museum and turning it into a world-class institution to begin with. And I certainly never looked at the native American and African warrior figures as T.R.’s inferiors. In fact, they each struck me as being handsome and dignified.
At the same time, the more I’ve thought about it, the more dubious and specifically paternalistic the whole tableau has appeared (and I am a huge Theodore Roosevelt fan). So I can understand how others, especially non-whites, could be deeply dissatisfied and downright offended.
So I’m far from condemning the museum’s decision as yet another monument to stupidity or political correctness run riot, or what have you. But the more I read about these moves, the more encouraged I was. First, the museum (which is privately run, but receives some funding from the City and New York State, and therefore is partly accountable to the public), didn’t simply resolve to haul the statue away. In order to honor Roosevelt’s justified reputation as a conservationist by adding an entire exhibit hall to the parts of the museum already named for the former President In other words, the museum recognized that T.R., like many of the relatively easy History War cases I’ve written about, was more than an imperious explorer and white hunter.
An even more promising strategy for honoring such figures has been suggested by Roosevelt’s descendants. As reported in The New York Times story linked above, one of his great-grandsons, a museum trustee, issued this statement on behalf of the entire family:
“The world does not need statues, relics of another age, that reflect neither the values of the person they intend to honor nor the values of equality and justice. The composition of the Equestrian Statue does not reflect Theodore Roosevelt’s legacy. It is time to move the statue and move forward.”
Other than striking an unusually wise and magnanimous tone, the statement suggests the following exciting possibility (and one I also hinted at in my discussion of the Pierre Beauregard statue in New Orleans): Why not replace the current statue with one that’s not a “relic of another age” and “move forward: with one that reflects the dimensions of Roosevelt’s legacy (in this case, his devotion to naturalism) that no patriotic American could possibly question?
Moreover, why not use the same approach to the Abraham Lincoln statues in Boston and in Washington, D.C., which have been criticized because they include a kneeling newly emancipated slave? Wouldn’t such monuments better honor Lincoln if they portrayed the freeman figure standing up and, perhaps, shaking the former President’s hand?
As for statues of more legitimately controversial figures, they should be seen as candidates for more somber modifications that would nonetheless both accomplish needed educational aims without overlooking the case for singling them out for public display.
For example, it’s true that Christopher Columbus literally expanded humanity’s horizons and helped set in motion the long sequence of events that led to the United States’ founding. But he and his brother also mistreated the peoples they found in the Caribbean brutally, and (inadvertantly to be sure) opened the door to centuries of mass death, oppression, enslavement, and other forms of misery for the Western Hemisphere’s entire indigenous population. Maybe representations of these crimes and tragedies, which sadly are baked into U.S. history as well, could be erected besides Columbus statues?
And why shouldn’t the various monuments to Andrew Jackson (like the statue that attracted the Lafayette Square vandals’ ire) similarly be replaced with a representation acknowledging that he was not only a national military hero and savior of the union (during the 1832 nullification crisis), with some legitimate claim as an advocate of working class Americans, but also, as critics charge, a slave-owner and active supporter of such servitude – not to mention an almost inhuman scourge of native Americans.
When it comes to public art, for the sake of the nation’s spirit and self-respect, there’s nothing wrong with and indeed considerable value in a little romanticizing or glorification of individuals meriting much credit for creating an American national story that’s unmistakably a success story from every possible standpoint. But where the legacies are less overwhelmingly positive, it would be equally worthwhile to develop ways of displaying major virtues alongside important warts in statues, monuments, and plaques.
The challenges to be met are preserving the symbolic power of displays commemorating figures as genuinely heroic as inherently flawed human beings can possibly be, courageously facing facts about more ambiguous legacies, and calling and weeding out genuine villains such as traitors.
That is, all involved in creating America’s public art – which should be all Americans and their elected representatives – should avoid the temptation to champion the kinds of caricature bound to fuel considerable disillusionment and even contempt. And by meeting this challenge, today’s Americans would leave an invaluable legacy of their own for future generations.