How Monuments Are Re-telling American History
by Yvonne Bynoe
Art allows us to expand our vision of who we are and, for Black Americans, also who we have been.
In September 2019, Kehinde Wiley’s first work of public art, Rumors of War, was unveiled in Times Square in New York City. It’s a breathtaking monument that presents a Black man as a heroic figure on horseback. The 27-foot high, 16-foot wide bronze sculpture is mounted on an impressive limestone base.
Similar to Wiley’s paintings that position contemporary Black men in poses from classical works, the horseman with his dreadlocked hair and sneakers seems modern but not wholly. Rumors of War isn’t depicting a martyr or an outlaw, the common designations assigned to Black men. Perhaps Wiley’s monument is saying that powerful Black men like the rider have always existed and will always exist.
Wiley reportedly conceived of the sculpture in 2016 when he visited the Virginia Museum of Fine Art in Richmond for the opening of his exhibition Kehinde Wiley: A New Republic. Wiley gained international celebrity after President Barack Obama chose him to paint his 2018 official portrait that now hangs in the National Portrait Gallery.
While visiting the Virginia Museum of Fine Art, Wiley was struck by a statue of General J.E.B. Stuart and its evocation of the “Lost Cause” ideology, which erases the sins of slavery and claims that the Confederate states honorably fended off Northern aggression.
English novelist George Orwell coined the term “doublethink,” which refers to the process of holding two contradictory beliefs at the same time (and actually believing them both to be true). For more than 150 years, through doublethink, the descendants of Confederates have used monuments to transform seditionists and slaveholders into heroes. On April 9,1865, Confederate general Robert E. Lee surrendered to the Union Army by commanding one of his soldiers to wave a dishcloth near the Appomattox Courthouse. Despite losing the Civil War, Lee has been memorialized as a patriot who valiantly defended his country.
Dr. W.E.B. Du Bois, scholar, activist and co-founder of the National Association of the Advancement of Colored People (N.A.A.C.P), believed that Southerners, through their monuments, mythologized the Confederacy as a means to keep Black Americans as second-class citizens. He sarcastically addressed their selective memory and history in a 1931 issue of The Crisis magazine saying:
In the South, particularly, human ingenuity has been put in to explain on its monuments, the Confederacy. Of course, the plain truth of the matter would be an inscription something like: “Sacred to the memory of those who fought to Perpetuate Human Slavery.” But that reads with increasing difficulty as time goes on. It does, however, seem to be overdoing it to read on a North Carolina Confederate monument: “Died Fighting for Liberty!”
Monuments are symbols of power and the preservation of ideals. Going back to ancient times, people in power have used statues to create mythologies supporting their dominance over the masses. Emperors and kings used statues and monuments to elevate themselves and their victorious warriors to god-like stature. Majestic monuments not only articulated a leader’s official narrative but also confirmed to his subjects that he was divinely selected to rule.
For years, activists have been working to remove Confederate flags and the statues of Confederate heroes from public spaces. Just like Du Bois, activists saw a clear connection between racial injustice that resulted in a litany of Black deaths by modern day Klansmen and the monuments that venerated White supremacists.
On June 27, 2015, Bree Newsome was arrested for climbing the flagpole and removing the Confederate flag from the South Carolina state house grounds. Her action was in response to Dylan Roof, a 21-year-old White supremacist who killed nine Black people on June 17, 2015 during Bible study at Emanuel African Episcopal Methodist Church in Charleston. The resulting publicity put pressure on state officials to remove the flag, and it was taken down permanently on July 10, 2015.
Two years later on August 17, 2017, Heather Heyer was killed and 35 people injured in Charlottesville, Virginia after self-proclaimed Neo-Nazi, James Fields, a native of Toledo, Ohio, deliberately drove his Dodge Challenger into a crowd. A group of anti-racists, which included Heyer, were protesting the White nationalist, “Unite The Right” rally. Then President Trump was widely criticized for not condemning the White nationalists but instead saying that there was “blame on both sides” for the violence in the college town.
In the aftermath of the May 2020 killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis policeman Derek Chauvin, the movement to remove Confederate statues gained momentum. In towns and cities across the country, multi-racial groups of Black Lives Matter protesters marched for justice and toppled statues of Confederate icons. The focal point of this movement became the statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee in Richmond, Virginia. It is an important monument to the “Lost Cause” narrative that undergirds White supremacist propaganda, which has fermented violence against Black Americans. Protesters defaced Lee’s statue amid chants to “Tear it down.”
On June 4, 2020, Virginia Governor Ralph Northam announced the statue of Robert E. Lee would be removed, saying, “Today, we’re here to be honest about our past and talk about our future.” It was an important, albeit symbolic, step to set the record straight once and for all: The Union Army rightfully won the Civil War.
The removal of Lee’s statue, however, was legally halted by a handful of Virginia residents who filed two lawsuits against the state. The plaintiffs argued that in 1887 and 1890, the Commonwealth of Virginia contracted through deeds to keep the Robert E. Lee statue in place for perpetuity. In June 2021, The Supreme Court of Virginia heard oral arguments and a ruling on the fate of the statue will be made in several months.
Despite the legal maneuvering regarding the Robert E. Lee statue, on July 2, 2020 a statue of Confederate general Stonewall Jackson and four other Confederates came down in Richmond after Mayor Levar Stoney ordered the “immediate removal” of all Confederate monuments on city property.
Predictably, White conservatives opined that “wokeness,” rather than the reprehensible conduct and beliefs of the Confederates, was to blame for removal of the statues. Underneath the bloviating is the fear that the myth of White, male, Christian superiority is being eroded as each Confederate statue disappears from public view. Furthermore, their loss of power would mean that the statues of their heroes would be replaced by monuments bestowing hero status on the very people they had long oppressed.
The Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial in Washington, DC is an example of their fear realized.
In August, 2011, forty-eight years after he gave his famous “I Have A Dream” speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, the 30-foot Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial was opened to the public. King’s likeness is carved into the “Stone of Hope,” emerging from two boulders, which started as one and represents the “Mountain of Despair,” which references Dr. King’s speech. The King Memorial is positioned between the Jefferson and Lincoln Memorials on the National Mall and situates Dr. King as a national icon for his role in the Civil Rights Movement. It is also the first individual monument on the National Mall for a Black American.
In a 1994 interview with The Paris Review, Nigerian writer, Chinua Achebe quotes the great African proverb: “That until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.” Ida B. Wells was the lions’ historian.
Ida B. Wells was an investigative journalist, newspaper founder, anti-lynching activist, and a founding member of the N.A.AC.P. Born into slavery in 1862, she started her career as a school teacher in Memphis, Tennessee. She later began writing about racial injustice under the pseudonym, “Iola” and founded the Memphis Free Speech and Headlight newspaper. In 1892, under the threat of death, Wells left Memphis. She arrived in Chicago in 1893 and she lived in the Bronzeville community until her death in 1931.
“The way to right wrongs is to shine the light of truth upon them.” -Ida B. Wells
After the killing of three local business owners, Wells’ investigations showed that lynchings were not used as retribution against criminals, but were instead deliberately used by Whites to intimidate, torture, and kill successful Blacks. A lynching was a clear message to Blacks to aim low and stay in their place, which was below White men. She published her findings in 1892 in a pamphlet titled Southern Horrors: Lynch Law and All of Its Horrors.
Ninety years after her death in 1931, she received her overdue recognition. On July 1, 2021, the Light of Truth Ida B. Wells National Monument was unveiled in Chicago, Illinois. The abstract work was created by famed sculptor Richard Hunt. It stands 30 feet tall with a tripod of bronze columns as its base. Above the base are bronze sheets twisted into coils and spirals that evoke the presence of a flame. The monument was installed in Bronzeville on the site of the Chicago Housing Authority’s Ida B. Wells Homes, which were demolished in 2011. It is the first monument in Chicago to pay homage to a Black American woman.
This monument to Wells’ legacy shines light on the truth that Whites have used violence and murder, not superior intellect or morals, to maintain economic and political power.
As state and municipal leaders seek to better reflect their populations and/or as more information is discovered about particular historical figures, it’s reasonable to reassess public monuments. Monuments that celebrate known racists or that support White supremacists’ ideology should be removed. In the 21st century, it no longer suffices to say that XYZ was a “man of his times” as the justification to maintain a statue of that person on government land or in public parks. Museums are suitable venues to house such statues and to explain their historical context.
On June 21, 2021, after years of controversy, debate, and defacement, The New York City Public Design Commission Authority voted unanimously to remove the Equestrian Statue of President Theodore Roosevelt that has stood on the steps of The American Museum of Natural History since 1940. The statue depicts President Roosevelt astride his horse and below him on either side is an Native American man and an African man.
Besides the obvious hierarchical positioning of the three men, the unspoken message of the statue is that Roosevelt, the White father, is bringing the benefits of civilization to his benighted savages. Neither The American Museum of Natural History nor New York City want to remain associated with that message. New York City owns the statue and, on the topic, Mayor Bill de Blasio stated:
“The American Museum of Natural History has asked to remove the Theodore Roosevelt statue because it explicitly depicts Black and Indigenous people as subjugated and racially inferior. The City supports the Museum’s request. It is the right decision and the right time to remove this problematic statue.”
On June 29, 2021, eight days after Roosevelt’s monument was voted to be removed, The United States House of Representatives voted to remove statues of Confederates from the Capitol Building, as well as the bust of former Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger B. Taney. Taney wrote the infamous Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857) decision ruling that a “Black man had no rights that a White man was bound to respect.” That decision infamously designated Blacks as ⅗ of a person, thus denying them rights of citizenship.
In its vote, The U.S. House of Representatives said that as a nation we no longer support the views espoused by White supremacists and therefore will not lionize them with statues in our highest seat of government. All House Democrats approved the measure while sixty-seven House Republicans voted against the removal of these relics of White supremacy. The bill has been sent to the Senate for final Congressional approval.
Though too soon to tell, it would be wonderful if the Martin Luther King, Jr Memorial, Rumors of War, and Light of Truth Ida B. Wells National Monument represents a new generation of monuments that correct the official story of the United States by sounding the death knell on the myth of White superiority.
We need national monuments that examine the Reconstruction Era (1865-1877), which followed the Civil War and (temporarily) gave Black men, many of whom were formerly enslaved, the right to vote and run for office. Black politicians of this era deserving recognition include
Hiram Rhodes Revels of Mississippi, the first Black American to serve in the U.S. Senate (1870) and Joseph Hayne Rainey of South Carolina, who was born enslaved and became the first Black American elected to the U.S. House of Representatives (1868). Only a decade earlier, their Congressional seats had been held by Southern slave owners.
“My race needs no special defense, for the past history of them in this country proves them to be equal of any people anywhere. All they need is an equal chance in the battle of life.” —Representative Robert Smalls of South Carolina (In office from 1884-1887)
The period of Reconstruction fills in an important gap in U.S. history, allowing us to fully understand the events that led to our current state of affairs. During Reconstruction, Black Americans advanced despite the considerable obstacles against them. However, Southern Whites intent on maintaining a racial caste system used every legal and extralegal means to retard their political, educational, and economic progress. The emergence of Jim Crow laws that existed well into the 1960s were a backlash to the upward mobility of Blacks. Moreover, the systemic racism that they created is ingrained in the fabric of the country.
It would be negligent not to call for more visible acknowledgement of the Indigenous people who inhabited the land that we call the United States, long before a lost European explorer stumbled onto it. Monuments to leaders such as Chief Joseph, Geronimo, Sitting Bull and Red Cloud would move their stories and those of their nations from the margins of American history to the center. Moreover, it would expose exactly how the colonists and settlers used guns, not grit, to seize lands from Native Americans then confine them to reservations.
In the book, Song of Achilles, a fictionalized account of Greece’s greatest warrior, Achilles, the hero is killed during the Trojan War. In the aftermath, the Greek kings discuss Achilles’ tomb, including where it would be located and its size. As the narrator states, “The greater the monument, the greater the man. The stone the Greeks quarry for his grave is huge and white, stretching up to the sky. ACHILLE, it reads. “It will stand for him, and speak to all who pass: he lived and died, and lives again in memory.”
The Greeks used monuments to immortalize their leaders and so do we. If we want to shine light on the truth of the United States, who we build monuments to matters greatly.
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Yvonne Bynoe is the founder of the online platform @shelovesblackart which highlights visual art from the African diaspora. She is a former attorney and the author of the acclaimed book, Stand and Deliver: Political Activism, Leadership and Hip Hop Culture.
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