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The next lesson in American history should be how to challenge it, and we should start with the monuments

Published September 26, 2020


The first place I went after my first visit to Georgetown was the Jefferson Memorial. A history buff with a knack for American presidential trivia, going to college in the nation’s capital was, and remains, my dream. I sat on those great white marble steps overlooking the Tidal Basin and gazed at the Washington Monument in awe.

The awe and wonder that I felt, that many feel when visiting the National Mall, is natural. It’s what we’re supposed to feel when we remember the Founding Fathers. It’s reinforced by our cultural education when we celebrate Presidents’ Day and dress up as historical figures like they are superheroes. While their contributions to the country should not be understated, the memorializing is often misleading. While we gaze, mouth agape, at the monuments for these men, we often ignore and forget the darker sides of their history and that of our country. At that moment, it’s hard to question those monuments. What if we demanded a fuller picture of these men? What if we directed these feelings of awe toward marginalized, forgotten people in our history? What if we changed who gets the spotlight?

This spotlight doesn’t just shine on the National Mall. Our sacred monuments hold value because they are symbols of national unification, and that unification and the reverence these memorials inspire are taught and reinforced in American cultural education.

On Sept. 1, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser released the District of Columbia Facilities and Commemorative Expressions Working Group’s (DCFACES) report recommending the renaming, removal, or contextualization of 57 sites in the District whose namesakes have ties to the oppression of African Americans and other communities of color.

The working group, which was assembled this July, assessed the legacy of D.C. namesakes, considering an individual’s participation in slavery, involvement in systemic racism, support of oppression, involvement in any supremacist agendas, and violation of D.C.’s human rights laws. Actions that “disqualified an honor” included enslaving people, authoring or supporting policy or legislation that suppressed women and people of color, and participating in a supremacist organization active in the suppression of people of color. The working group reviewed the namesake legacy of 153 assets that conflicted with the stated values of D.C. residents and arguably the progressive values of our country.

In the end, DCFACES recommended the renaming of 21 D.C. public schools; nine residential buildings and campuses; 12 parks, fields, and playgrounds; and seven government buildings. Lastly, they recommended the removal, relocation, or contextualization of eight statues and memorials, including the Jefferson Memorial and the Washington Monument. 

This recommendation quickly received dramatic backlash from Congressional Republicans and critics of Bowser. U.S. Rep. Jim Jordan from Ohio’s fourth congressional district, along with U.S. Rep. James Comer from Kentucky’s first district, announced he was launching an investigation into the proposal.

“The Republican Party is the pro-America party. While Republicans celebrate our shared heritage, Democrats focus on ‘canceling’ the institutions and people that have made our country great,” Jordan said in a statement, implicitly characterizing criticism of our history as “anti-American.”

A few days after the report’s release, Bowser announced the city had no intention of proposing the removal or replacement of the federal monuments. The recommendation details regarding the statues and monuments have since been removed from the DCFACES report.

“It was not our intention to do anything with the federal monuments and memorials,” Bowser said in a news conference.

Even if it wasn’t DCFACES’ intention, just the idea of removing, relocating, or contextualizing the monuments incited a defensive response from people like Jordan and Comer. The Washington Monument was never going to be torn down, a fact critics likely knew. But to them, merely touching American history would destroy it. Without understanding the reasons and motivations for criticizing America’s history, skeptics believe that challenging history ruins it.

According to Dr. Erika Seamon, an associate professor in the American Studies Program, these monuments hold value to many in part because they are meant to stand as a cultural symbol of unity among a diverse group of people. They are stark and permanent; they diminish debate.

“We’re at the very beginning of a conversation that says, ‘Well, those monuments were put up to create unity and to stop division and discourse and faction about who the heroes were and what the right stories were, but what if they’re not creating unity anymore?’” Seamon asked.

The monuments were built to create a national consensus about the leaders and icons in American history. In a country that has struggled to overcome its factions and differing backgrounds of its people, monuments are an answer to the problem of creating a collective identity.

DCFACES’ recommendation, and the ensuing controversy and backlash, gives us an example of the questions we must begin asking—what would it mean to remove or rename something that has been part of our capital’s landscape for roughly 150 years? And do we even know what contextualizing monuments and other buildings in D.C. would look like?

The removal of racist statues is not an unfamiliar concept to the American public. As the recent Black Lives Matter movement has gained momentum nationwide, cities and states alike have removed statues and renamed spaces and buildings with racist namesakes. Most recently, on Sept. 12, the Confederate statue “At Ready” was removed from its site in Charlottesville, VA, where a violent white supremacist rally was held in 2017.

This summer, the New York City Parks Department announced plans to rename parks in every borough after Black Americans with local, national, or historical significance. In California, communities are pushing for the renaming of schools, and in Fullerton, California, a school board successfully voted to remove the name of a Klu Klux Klan member from an auditorium.

As for the contextualization of monuments or statues, there are no guidelines or precedents. In 2016, calls for the removal of a statue of former Supreme Court Justice Roger Taney from the front of the State House in Annapolis, Maryland, prompted architect Chip Bohl to suggest that instead of removal, they add a statue of Frederick Douglass. Taney, known for writing the majority opinion in the Dred Scott decision which denied Black Americans U.S. citizenship, would be moved to one side of the State House with Douglass on the other staring right at him. Bohl thought it would be an “educational event.” Instead, the Taney statue was removed and, as of 2019, remains in storage.

What Bohl suggested is better than most responses. Yet I wonder if adding a second statue is enough to contextualize something. The mere presence of Douglass, while adding some context, does not challenge the memorialization of a man with an oppressive and racist history. If someone went to the state house in Bohl’s vision and saw these two figures with drastically conflicting messages, they might ask questions, but there’s no guarantee where they would end up. Part of me thinks that we aren’t universally taught the skills to contextualize—the average American classroom does not prompt this critical evaluation of our history.

Bohl’s idea to add Douglass to the scene is one idea of what contextualizing a monument could look like. The DCFACES report, even the one that included the monuments and statues recommendations, does not clearly expand upon what “contextualizing” would look like.

While the renaming of public schools and public spaces in D.C. to better reflect its residents, 44.53 percent of whom are Black while 70 percent of assets are named after white men, seems like a no-brainer for some, the recommendations for the Jefferson Memorial and the Washington Monument bring up more complicated questions about symbols with value on a national scale. More than 25 million people visit the National Mall each year. There is a sacred American attachment to these monuments, a reverence for these symbols that have been put in stone.

I feel this attachment every time I visit the National Mall. When I walk the length of the Reflecting Pool, or bike between monuments, there’s an overwhelming presence of history. I think not of the injustices and the hypocrisies, but of the positive themes that echo in history. It’s a privilege to feel this way, as a white American. I don’t look at the presidents and see men who enslaved and oppressed people who look like me. Only later it dawns on me that those monuments mean very different things to very different people. It’s a case for whatever form contextualization may take because we need to have the whole picture when we look at these monuments.

When we start to challenge the implications of putting someone in stone, when we start to think of alternative visions of the National Mall, we start to destabilize foundational understandings of our nation’s culture. This is scary.

“Some communities view the destabilization as an irreverent, scary, frightening, horrific, damaging demolition of the values and the very glue and the foundation of the nation,” Seamon said.

We’ve seen this in the response to DCFACES’ recommendations. The Wall Street Journal’s editorial board spoke out against the move, criticizing the application of modern standards to the past. Dan Henninger, the deputy editor of their editorial page, said that it was a “complete transformation of American history,” which was a “big problem” to him.

But what about those who don’t think that reevaluating American history is a “big problem”? For those who have historically been left out of dominant American narratives, or are empathetic with communities who have been muted in our history, it’s time we challenge our conceptions of what stories should stick.

Are these monuments, and these men, still symbols of unity? This is the question that the recommendation to remove the Washington Monument and the Jefferson Memorial asks.

This question didn’t arrive by accident—there are material forces behind these changes. The DCFACES working group was assembled during the summer of the current Black Lives Matter movement and of the conversations about the systemic oppression inherent in our country’s past and present. If there was ever a time to question the permanence and memorialization of the people who contributed to that oppression, it is now.

Seamon spoke of the concept of a life and death for these monuments, an idea that comes out of these conversations.

“Is there a life-cycle, is there an opportunity for the birth, the growth, the life and then the decline and death, of not just monuments that have been so prominent, but the narratives that go along with them?” she asked.

Arguably, DCFACES’ suggestion answered that question. Their recommendation dared to imagine an America where we no longer needed these monuments, or these stories, to unite us as a nation.

“They’ve done their work of unifying, and now they’re not stories or monuments of unity anymore,” Seamon said.

If this is true, then it’s something we should be honest and upfront about. We need people to come to conversations that challenge American history with a complete understanding of it. Only then do we fully comprehend the implications of memorializing the men in the National Mall and across the country. When we teach the Declaration of Independence, we must simultaneously teach that as Thomas Jefferson penned our freedom to the world, he was actively diminishing the freedom of others through his participation in slavery. What we teach about the founding of America informs how we discuss and challenge our history. We must start with education, and we have to play the long game.

The New York Times’s “1619 Project” shows us how history can be reframed and contextualized in the classroom. The 1619 Project, a Pulitzer-Prize winning collection launched in 2019, reframes American history around the arrival of the first slave ship at Point Comfort, Virginia in 1619. The 1619 Project asks us to challenge our assumptions about America’s narratives and who gets the spotlight in those stories.

Recently, President Donald Trump has embarked on a crusade against interpretations of American history that he has deemed “un-American.” On Sept. 6, Trump announced in a tweet that the Department of Education will investigate the use of the 1619 Project in California public schools. Along with criticizing the project, on Sept. 17, Trump announced the establishment of the “1776 commission,” which he signed into an executive order to “promote patriotic education.” The commission would support a “pro-American” curriculum and what Trump calls the “truths” of American history.

According to Seamon, the 1619 project is an example of what we can expect from the discourse surrounding narratives that are no longer unifying.

“[Trump’s backlash] is an indicator that there will be communities of people who don’t see the narratives that have been told for generations, and the narratives that are reflected in the monuments on the Mall, and narratives that are reflected in street names, that do not see a life-cycle to those narratives, they see them as permanent fixtures that cannot die,” Seamon said. “That’s why, for many communities, the taking down of Confederate monuments is scary because there is a sense that they have been there from the beginning and they need to persist until the end of time in order for the nation to persist in having a collective culture.”

It’s past time we question the foundation of that collective culture and ask what narratives of American history have stuck around and why. This is why we have to focus on education as a factor in changing how we talk about and experience American history. We must start debunking American myths, contextualizing American stories, and uplifting diverse voices from America’s history and founding in our textbooks. According to Seamon, the Thanksgiving holiday and reverence for the Pilgrims were constructed in the 19th century. Even the inclusion of “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance was constructed, introduced in the mid-1900s, as a response to communism and its atheism.

“Once we learn that these stories have been constructed and not been around forever, what does that mean for the obligation to keep them around forever?” Seamon asked.

It means we need to start a widespread questioning of that obligation. We need to better educate ourselves as an American society on the systemic oppression existent in our nation’s history and how that is reflected in what we choose to put in stone. We need to look more closely at those who suffered from the hypocrisies inherent in the words: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,” the ones who led the movements to gain the rights promised by those men forever immortalized on the National Mall. We need to look at the whole picture and leave no one out.

You need only look to the streets of D.C. and the National Mall to bear witness to the history of oppression in this country, as the men who helped institutionalize it are present and memorialized throughout. If you Google “Slavery Tour D.C.,” you will find people offering unofficial guided tours on Tripadvisor and Way that take you around the District to reveal its history with slavery. Imagine if those tours were official. At Monticello, Jefferson’s estate, an official “Slavery at Monticello” tour is offered, telling the story of the over 600 slaves the former president owned in his lifetime. What if we had a tour like that, a contextualizing tour, at every monument in D.C. and along the National Mall?

At the Jefferson Memorial, tourists and D.C. natives alike would read the excerpt from the Declaration of Independence inscribed on the interior southwest wall while knowing of his plantation in Virginia. Visitors at the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial would walk through the site for the man who led America through the Great Depression and World War II with complete knowledge that in 1942, he signed Executive Order 9066, leading to the internment of approximately 120,000 Japanese Americans.

And every time an eighth-grade field-tripper gazed up at the 555-foot marble monument to America’s first president piercing the sky, they would know that the man it stands for owned slaves, even as he fought for our freedom. 

 

Disclaimer: Hoge is a student in one of Seamon’s classes and a member of the American Studies Program.


Annabella Hoge
Annabella is a sophomore in the college who enjoys wearing bucket hats and writing about mini-golf. She is also an assistant news editor.


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