Tearing Down Monuments to the Slave Trade

Tearing Down Monuments to the Slave Trade June 13, 2020

I was profoundly disturbed to see someone I know share a post on social media comparing those who tear down statues of confederate generals and monuments of slave traders in the present day to the Nazis in WWII Germany. There is a lot that is being said on social media at the moment that is deeply troubling and deserving of a direct response. That’s what I try to offer here.

I want to jump right in to the topic with a question. Was it wrong for statues of Hitler to be torn down after WWII? Was it wrong for statues of Eastern Bloc leaders to be torn down after the fall of Communist dictatorships in Eastern Europe? Did you object, for that matter, when the statue of Saddam Hussein was torn down after the U.S. invasion of Iraq?

Statues have been torn down throughout history. It is not an erasure of memory to do so. Statues in public locations celebrate the past. There need to be Holocaust museums that work to ensure that people don’t forget the atrocities of the past. That isn’t the same thing as having a statue of a Nazi general in a park.

Some consider any blog post that mentions Hitler in any comparative way to be worth rejecting on principle. But the analogy is not chosen lightly, even as one among many that I mentioned. Millions have died as a result of the slave trade. We could include those who died even after slavery was abolished but who have been lynched and otherwise murdered because the racist ideology used to justify and support slavery could not be abolished through law in the same way the institution of slavery could. In that case the figure would be higher. But even just the direct deaths resulting from capturing people in Africa and transporting them in ships to the Americas makes it justifiable to call it a holocaust.

And so I am astonished if you are one of the many people asking why these statues are being pulled down. The question you should be asking is why it has taken this long for these statues to come down, and why people are still objecting. After wars are fought or regimes fall, statues usually fall as well. They don’t have to be ground to dust so that they disappear as artifacts of historical record. But they can and often should fall without objection as objects indicating what a society esteems. And so if we ask why it took so long for this to happen, the answer is obviously because even though the United States won the Civil War and defeated the secessionists, the ideology that drove them to fight to keep their slaves lives on. People object to these monuments coming down because they want these individuals they consider heroes to continue to be celebrated.

And so the Civil War continues, even if not for the most part with bullets, as racist ideology that would love to celebrate even today the enslavement of other human beings for their financial benefit continues to be adhered to and passed on. I have no idea how to win that war. But it seems to me that the reactions to the tearing down of confederate and slaver statues indicates that the struggle continues.

Before ending, let me emphasize the cost of certain courses of action related to statues and monuments. Keeping statues celebrating a racist past in pubic places costs lives, as they reinforce values that dehumanize others. Keeping them well-preserved in a museum costs money. Both of those actions cost an entire society in real practical ways that prevent human thriving. Before you say they should stay in either place, I recommend reading what art historian Erin Thompson had to say on the subject in the New York Times. See too Joshua Zeitz’s article from a few years ago on the fact that there are no statues of Hitler in Nazi Germany and what the difference between that and the U.S. South says about the latter. And let me add one more bit of justification for the mention of and analogy with Hitler. There is historical evidence that the Third Reich was inspired by the example of U. S. racism, our legislation, segregation, and so on, in crafting its own policies and laws.

Are you really going to tell me the analogy isn’t apt? Are you really going to try to invert the analogy by pointing out that Hitler and his Nazis had statues torn down as well? Statues have been torn down all throughout history. Ask yourself why you think these particular statues that celebrate racism and slavery should be the exception to that rule.

See also the following on other blogs and elsewhere on the web:

Pulling Down Statues Is Not the Same as Blasting Sacred Sites

How the Robert E. Lee Monument Contributed to the Segregation of Richmond

An African Muslim who was enslaved in America reveals through his manuscript who he really was

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