If You Need A Statue To Teach You History…

If You Need A Statue To Teach You History… June 10, 2020

We’re getting a lot of news now about municipal statues being torn down, because they memorialized Confederate generals or Christopher Columbus. I haven’t been shy about saying I’m in favor. But believe it or not, I do have sympathy for the people who don’t want the statues taken away because they’re “part of our history.”

You’re right, of course. Columbus is part of our history. The Civil War is part of our history.

I’m unconvinced that unremarkable municipal bronze memorials are the best way to teach and remember our history. But if that’s what you want to do: fine. Let’s teach history through unremarkable municipal bronze memorials. Get rid of the idealized glorified portrayals of Confederate generals and Christopher Columbus, because those aren’t very educational. They don’t really teach you anything. Put up statues of abolitionists, Underground Railroad conductors, and heroes from the Civil Rights movement, along with signs explaining what they did to deserve this honor. We can still have statues of Confederate generals. We’ll just keep them off pedestals at eye-level, and we’ll include a great big plaque detailing their crimes, how many Americans their rebellion killed, and what they were really like. People whose history is checkered and complicated, some good and some bad, can have an extra-long plaque. We’ll do this for everyone famous.

Let’s go farther than that. Let’s have memorials to lynchings and other atrocities committed against Black people, wherever they happened. I know we already have a lynching museum in America, but considering how prevalent and widespread lynching was, we need more and more memorials all over the place. We have lots of Holocaust Memorials, justly, and that didn’t even happen here. Every venerable old Southern plantation gets an historic marker mourning the slaves who built it and who suffered there too. Let’s remember an American genocide.

And while I’m on the subject of genocide, let’s have municipal memorials to Native Americans as well. At least one per county seat, dedicated to describing who the people were who lived in this particular place, what they looked like, what they wore, the stories they told, and how many of them we murdered or displaced.

And for those of you saying “what about the Irish?” Don’t worry, I’m getting to that. I am mostly of Irish heritage myself, the O’Keefes from Waterford and the Haringtons from God alone knows where. And I find it not only possible but easy to say that the Irish were subject to all kinds of dreadful, murderous injustice in our history, and also that it’s not the same as race-based chattel slavery. No, indentured servants that were just kept forever were not the same as race-based chattel slavery. Both were dreadful, the latter was way worse. Besides the memorials to slavery and to segregation and to lynching, we’ll have memorials detailing every ethnic group that immigrated to the United States and all the discrimination and hardships they faced.

Every historic Catholic church in America should have a plaque on it, apologizing to the immigrants who weren’t allowed to worship there because they weren’t considered “real Catholics” so they had to go and build their own church. The traditionally Italian church can apologize to the Irish who can apologize to the Poles and so on. And I imagine that churches of other denominations will have similar apologies to make.

 

Every time we tear down a mill, or do something with the land that was once a coal mine, the plans for what gets built in its place ought to include a small memorial to the workers who were exploited there and a list of all the things that were done to them. The Appalachian miners are going to need far more than just a plaque.

Every port gets a memorial to the slave ships that entered there, and to the boats carrying refugees that were sent away.

Every venerable old historic hospital gets a marker apologizing to the minorities it once refused to treat.

Every house and business that belonged to a Japanese-American before they were taken to an internment camp, gets a marker.

And on top of that, we can still have Civil War battle reenactments. We can still have Colonial Williamsburg and Historic Jamestown. We can go and see the houses where former presidents lived. We can read the accounts of hardy pioneers and admire how they managed to keep themselves alive out in the woods or on the prairie. Lincoln can stay in the Lincoln Memorial, with another memorial next door discussing the Native Americans he put to death. That’s history too. We don’t have to forget it.

But we can be honest about all of America, not just the parts we like. And we can do away entirely with the lies.

I’m sure I’m forgetting a lot of things that have to be remembered, but that’s a beginning. Let’s remember all of America.

This won’t be enough. While we remember where we came from, we’ve got to change who we are. Memorials and statues and museums and holidays aren’t enough if we don’t change our culture for the better. We have so much we need to do.

But if you want municipal statues to help you remember history, then here’s a place to start.

If these ideas offend you… well, maybe the thing you want to remember isn’t really history.

Image via Wikimedia Commons

Mary Pezzulo is the author of Meditations on the Way of the Cross

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