As Confederate statues disappear, will monuments to people of color replace them?

The ‘Rumors of War’ monument depicts a young African American in urban streetwear sitting on a horse.
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

With most of legal challenges solved after the abuse Let’s unite the rightand the Robert E. Lee statue removed from its lofty pedestal in downtown Charlottesville, Virginia, local lawmakers voted in December 2021 to do the unimaginable – donate the statue to the local Jefferson School African American Heritage Center.

In turn, the nonprofit cultural group quickly announced plans to melt the bronze statue and use it as raw material for a new piece of public art. What the group plans to build is still an open question, but it clearly won’t be another statue honoring the Lost cause of the Confederacy, the idea that slavery was a benevolent institution and that the Confederate cause was just.

As America comes to terms with its oppressive past, Charlottesville and the rest of the nation are faced with the question of not just which statues and other images should be removed, but what else – if appropriate – should be erected in their place.

Statues of black Americans — and, more importantly, their absence — are an often overlooked barometer of racial progress, hidden in plain sight. Despite their silence, the statues are active portraits that can enhance the value and visibility of black Americans. the lack of black statues sends a clear message of exclusion.

For its part, the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center wants to be not only more inclusive in the decision-making involved in determining the future of Lee’s statue, but also transformative.

“Our goal is not to destroy an object, it is to transform it” Andrea Douglas, explained the executive director of the center. “It’s about using the very raw material of its original manufacture and creating something that is more representative of the so-called democratic values ​​of this community, more inclusive of those voices that in 1920 had no ability to s engage in the artistic process.”

More importantly, she says, the group wants “turn it into something that can help our community heal.”

Construction workers use heavy duty chains to remove a statue.
A statue of Confederate General Robert E Lee is lifted from its pedestal in Charlottesville, Virginia.
John McDFor their partonnell/The Washington Post via Getty Images

History of exclusion

Like a pop culture history teacher who studies black statues within mainstream society, I believe Charlottesville is not the only city in need of healing. As more questions are asked about the current relevance of Confederate statues, Americans must also ask critical questions about the role of statues in shaping current morals and future ideals.

Although it is not uncommon to see statues of accomplished black athletes, such as Ray Lewis in Baltimore, Michael Jordan in Chicago or Bill Russell in Boston, it is much rarer to find memorialized Black Americans outside of the sports and entertainment industries.

With a few new exceptions, public and prominent statues of black people are non-existent.

The Art and Public History Association Monuments Laboratory conducted a survey in 2021 of 48,178 statues, plaques, parks, and obelisks across the United States. In its report, the group found that less than 1% were people of color.

Of 50 most represented people, survey finds only five are black or Indigenous: civil rights leader Martin Luther King jr. in fourth place; abolitionist and leader of the Underground Railroad Harriet Tubman on the 24th; Shawnee Chief Tecumseh, who led Native American resistance to colonialism, in the 25th; Explorer Lemhi Shoshone Sacagawea in the 28; and abolitionist and writer Frederick Douglass at the 29th.

More than likely, that percentage will remain the same for the foreseeable future – even with the recent wave of controversial statue removals in 2020 and 2021.

Since May 2020, the Archives of overthrown monuments detailed 84 such moves of “colonialist, imperialist, racist and sexist monuments” in North America. Additionally, the Southern Poverty Law Center Who owns the heritage? Project says that if other Confederate symbols are included, such as institution names and publicly displayed plaques, a more accurate number is that 168 were dismantled in 2020.

A changing landscape

Not a single statue was built to honor the heritage of a black person until 1974, when the likeness of renowned educator Mary McCleod Bethune became the first black statue ever erected on federal land. the Memorial of Martin Luther King, Jr. on the National Mall was not installed until 2011.

A statue of a black woman giving a loaf of bread to two children.
A view of the Mary McLeod Bethune statue in Lincoln Park in Washington.
Linda Davidson/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Bethune’s statue contrasts sharply with a nearby statue in Washington’s Lincoln Park. the Freedman Memorialerected in 1922, immortalizes Abraham Lincoln standing clothed and erect, while a shirtless black man with broken chains around his wrists kneels at Lincoln’s feet.

Tensions around this controversial symbol led to the removal of a similar statue in Boston December 29, 2020.

A statue of a man standing near another kneeling man.
The Freedmen’s Memorial depicts President Abraham Lincoln freeing a slave.
Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Public statues represent significant expenditures of time, money, and political capital, especially with more than US$2 million and four years of legal battles spent over the removal of the Robert E. Lee statue in Charlottesville.

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Public art is widely seen as a tool to tell a fuller and more honest story. As stated in the key findings of the Monuments Lab audit: Monuments should be held accountable for history. “Monuments that perpetuate harmful myths and portray conquest and oppression as acts of bravery require honest reckoning, conceptual dismantling and active repair,” the audit concluded.

Part of the repair takes place in Charlottesville and Richmond, Virginia, where specifically “War Rumors”featuring a black man in dreds and urban streetwear atop a mighty horse, stands near the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.

As in Charlottesville, Americans can reject the idea that our future, as it is now depicted in public statues, is permanently set in stone. Maybe when it comes to our existing statues, it’s time to think about what else we can melt down and forge again.The conversation

Frederick Gooding Jr. is Dr. Ronald E. Moore Professor of Humanities and African American Studies at Texas Christian University.

This article is republished from The conversation under Creative Commons license. Read it original article.

James C. Tibbs