Me, Myself and Monuments

A Black writer gives his perspective on monuments and memory

Black Lives Matter had been -heating up all across America, debates over racism, history and memorialization were raging and by June 17, the day was characterized by two events that have shaped my frame of reference ever since.

On that day, the mayor of Charleston, South Carolina, announced the statue memorializing former Vice President John C Calhoun—proponent of "states' rights" and known as the intellectual architect of slavery—was coming down.

I was knowledgeable about Calhoun since Charleston was once my hometown and where I lived before relocating to Santa Fe 10 years ago. Charleston's mayor was responding to fear of losing political clout, fear of social disunity or fear of protests. The background politics seemed less important than the fact a monument looming on a 100-foot pedestal—whose indignity had been contested by Blacks in Charleston since its erection in 1896—was leaving the social (and literal) pedestal. Calhoun wouldn't be gazing down on Black Charlestonians for another generation.

I couldn't say which announcement preceded the other time-wise, but I heard my hometown news first, before learning of Mayor Alan Webber's June 17 declaration that several monuments in Santa Fe, my second home, were also scheduled for removal. They included the obelisk in the Plaza and monuments to Kit Carson and Diego De Vargas, historical figures with highly questionable legacies. Politely stating so is in no historical sense revisionism since legacies of bloody conquerors, victors and racist systems have always been questioned by the people they trampled.

So on June 17 I contemplated colonialism and racism and relieved many old emotions. Historical parallels struck me starkly; the Calhoun statue in South Carolina and the Plaza obelisk both occupy central downtown spaces, signifying the heartbeat and pulse of a city. Charleston legend says the Calhoun statue initially stood on a human-scale mount. Vandalism beginning in the early 1900s pushed the pedestal higher in a futile attempt to escape protest, curses and rocks thrown by Blacks who believed Calhoun sneered at them from his perch.

The Santa Fe obelisk downtown features four inscriptions, including "To the heroes who have fallen in various battles with savage Indians…" with the word "savages" chiseled away. I believe the defacement was originally an act of vandalism. But morally, honestly—wasn't it a necessary intervention?

Who wants to justify "savages"?

Who wants to justify raising a slavery proponent on a pedestal so high his presence becomes unavoidable, from birth to death, like a psychological inevitability? Ask Blacks in South Carolina. Ask Native Americans in New Mexico.

On June 17, I spent several hours reading Facebook posts by friends in Charleston and in Santa Fe. The common refrain, roughly paraphrased, read, "I have spent years living with this burden, feeling hurt or ashamed of myself for wanting to cry. But right now I feel so proud."

There was a commonality between marginalized voices when they have their say. They have moved from the margins of democratic participation to the heart of a protest movement. The marginalized sometimes feel a particular kind of frustration speaking up at all given they had no say when these memorials were erected in the first place. The marginalized should have the deciding voices during the forthcoming battles over who we commemorate in America: If their blood has been spilled millionfold, their voices matter the most.

I admit there was a time when I was more accepting of arguments like "Monuments? Will tearing them down change the world? Or feed the hungry?"

There was a time in my own life when I found it nearly impossible to imagine the South without its Confederate emblems. The symbols have a way of becoming bound up with one's sense of a past, or identity, even when one intellectually disapproves. You worry on a gut level that your past will disappear without them. I see now that the attitude is parochialism, or, worse, a failure of the imagination.

The direct answer is yes, a vast reconsideration of history and morality can change the world by reflecting higher standards of ethics, morality and social justice. And it is historically educational, as people study the periods reassessed. Historical erasure is a straw man given that memorials removed can be replaced by other memorials honoring figures who are themselves historical.

More specifically, I don't support preserving memorials to conquistadores, Confederates, nor hypocrite slaveholders like Washington and Jefferson. You may disagree, but perhaps (if you're a progressive) you may still agree with this: A world with fewer memorials to military leaders and checkered politicians replaced by monuments to civic leaders, visionaries, labor rights leaders and freedom fighters who exist in all cultures—or simply honoring places instead of individuals—will also be a world friendlier to labor rights, civil rights, economic justice and environmental justice.

The time for protest (which is necessary), contention (which is inevitable), listening (which is healthy) and, above all else, debate, is now.

Darryl Lorenzo Wellington is a columnist, poet, playwright and performance artist.

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