In recent months we have intentionally addressed American political culture with some frequency. As a new federal administration takes shape in the United States, millions take to the streets to protest, and populist and nationalist movements gain momentum throughout the world, we—like many others—have been left with serious concerns about the state of national and international geopolitics. We are, it seems, watching the final act of the postwar world order and the first act of a new world order; and, like any audience, our posture is primarily one of waiting.
A community’s health is not just about what governments do to citizens, but also about what citizens can do together
But one of the great gifts of democratic self-governance is the capacity to focus our attention on what we can do. Within the democratic tradition, a community’s health is not just about what governments do to citizens, but also about what citizens can do together. We are not merely subjects, but citizens, and this means we have real (if unevenly distributed) agency to shape to our local communities.
Nowhere is this clearer than in the numerous and contentious debates about removing, replacing, or recontextualizing public monuments. Across the nation, communities narrate their own self-understandings through public art: monuments, memorials, flags, plaques, museums, murals, and the like. This week we bring you two pieces on these so-called “monument wars.”
The first, Rebecca Solnit’s “The Monument Wars,” comes from a recent issue of Harper’s magazine and begins with some basic reporting from her local context of New Orleans. “Monuments to the South’s Confederate past,” she says, “are not hard to find in New Orleans.” As Solnit makes plain, memorials celebrating this “Confederate past” are not restricted to honoring the bravery and skill of soldiers from the Confederate Army. In one particular tribute to the 1874 Battle of Liberty Place, an effort to overthrow the new Reconstructionist government in Louisiana, a plaque was added in 1932 praising the effort to overthrow the “carbetbag government.” The inscription, Solnit tells us, praises these men for their efforts to “RECOGNIZE WHITE SUPREMACY IN THE SOUTH AND GIVE US OUR STATE.”
Solnit’s essential question is this: who is the us in that inscription? And if the us of today includes those excluded from the us of the past, how do we negotiate the realities of shared space together? In other words, when we “excavate our history like an archaeological site,” how can the question of our public art be properly political—that is, how can it extend beyond the “us” of majority-white culture and include citizens who have been and are harmed by white supremacy? As she puts it, the debates about what to do with statues like this offer “a chance to arrive at new conclusions, nominate new heroes, rethink the past, and reorient ourselves to the future.”
Bryan Stevenson is leading one such effort. As director of the Equal Justice Initiative and a noted author and speaker, Stevenson is increasingly well-known as an advocate for prisoners on death row and a creative force within ongoing efforts at criminal justice reform. (If you’d like to know more about Stevenson, here’s Jeffrey Toobin’s profile from The New Yorker and Stevenson’s famous TED talk.)
But Stevenson knows the power of public art well, and as such, perhaps his most ambitious project is the Memorial to Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama. This memorial, as he puts it in an important interview with Corey Johnson for The Marshall Project, is an attempt to counter the narrative that racism, terror, and white supremacy are problems of the past:
“We are very confused when we start talking about race in this country because we think that things are ‘of the past’ because we don’t understand what these things really are, that narrative of racial difference that was created during slavery that resulted in terrorism and lynching, that humiliated, belittled, and burdened African Americans throughout most of the 20th century. The same narrative of racial difference that got Michael Brown killed, got Eric Garner killed and got Tamir Rice killed. That got these thousands of others – of African Americans – wrongly accused, convicted and condemned. It is the same narrative that has denied opportunities and fair treatment to millions of people of color, and it is the same narrative that supported and led to the executions in Charleston.”
Stevenson is clear to say that we cannot erase the past—nor should we. And the force of his argument is that characterizing efforts to remove, replace, or recontextualize monuments celebrating the Confederacy as a choice between “honoring our heritage” and “whitewashing history” is misleading. What is required is the courage to reckon with our history by telling a truthful story. Just as medical professionals do their patients a disservice when they minimize the severity of an illness, so too do we fail ourselves when we allow the weight of the status quo to numb our moral sensibilities so thoroughly that we minimize the harms inflicted upon fellow citizens.
Reckoning with our past can, in fact, require us to alter, supplement, or replace objects of public attention. However, just as battles vary in kind, severity, strategy, and outcome, so too do the monument wars, which ensure that no single rule will govern each and every case. Some monuments can and should be preserved, others should not be. But, as the plans for the Memorial for Peace and Justice shows, one way to educate us in our common heritage is to build immersive experiences that show, in full color, the terror inflicted upon black people through persistent and systemic forms of injustice. This too, Stevenson argues, educates us about our heritage.
We should not be surprised to find that debates about public art are contentious and direct. The monuments that populate our public spaces give us public narratives that we then come to embody and reiterate. They differentiate this place from just any place, and shape our moral and civic sensibilities. The stakes, in other words, are very high. Just like the daily recitation of pledges or prayers form us into people who care about the objects of those prayers and pledges, so too does our public art act back upon us, causing us to strive to be one thing and not another. The question facing citizens of a democratic community is: what does truthfulness require and what can we do together?