The Monumental Debate – Argument in Rhetorical and Visual Forms

mon·u·men·tal (adjective)

  1. great in importance, extent, or size: huge, great, enormous
  2. of or serving as a monument: commemorative, memorial, celebratory (lexico.com)

I purposely chose the adjective form for this post’s title to emphasize that in the current debate over public statues, the arguments are of enormous importance and the nature of monuments are commemorative and celebratory. Do we want Confederate and other overtly racist statues to continue to stand?

Two compelling opinion pieces appeared recently:  Eugene Robinson’s “There is no earthly reason this nation should be defiled by Confederate statues” and David Blight’s “Yes, the Freedmen’s Memorial uses racist imagery. But don’t tear it down.”

The recent post on “Naming – calling it like it is” deals with the importance and power of naming oneself as well as naming discrimination that are perpetuated in names and in words—and the true attitudes and beliefs behind them. In the current debate over Confederate monuments, it is also a matter of naming, calling the monuments what they are and identifying the arguments, both rhetorical and visual, that comprise the controversies.

In his June 22, 2020 article in the Washington Post, Robinson points out that most Confederate memorials were not erected right after Civil War, but “decades later when white Southerners were reestablishing their repressive dominion over African Americans through the imposition of Jim Crow laws and a state-sponsored campaign of terrorism led by the Ku Klux Klan.”

Jared Yates Sexton, author of the forthcoming American Rule: How a Nation Conquered the World But Failed Its People, concurs, saying that the oppressive statues were meant to convey the message that slavery may have ended but white supremacy was not cured by the Civil War. On a recent Don Lemon Silence Is Not an Option podcast, Sexton elaborates that white supremacy is now hidden and more insidious, remaining in our laws and politics and culture.

Sexton goes on to say that a lot of it was engineered by Woodrow Wilson who rewrote American history in his many-volumed History of the American People, which was a complete discounting of white racism and a reframing of the Civil War as a “misunderstanding” and “a fight between brothers.” As well as promoting the idea of a US free of racism, Wilson and his policies actually inspired celebrations and memorials to the Confederacy and justified extreme measures to reassert democratic, white majority control of Southern state governments.

There have also been moves to topple other non-Confederate statues and monuments, including one of Christopher Columbus in Boston and one of Theodore Roosevelt outside the American Museum of Natural History in NYC. Robinson believes that removal should be decided by the context and memorial itself, arguing that “[a]s a society, we’re perfectly capable of deciding together which must go and which can stay.”

For an example, Robinson says that though Roosevelt “was relatively enlightened for his times,” the statue itself is the problem. It “amounts to a visual parable of white supremacy”: Roosevelt is astride a horse, and flanking him — on foot, thus beneath the great man — are a Native American man on one side and an African man on the other.” Overt racism and racist imagery should not be not be honored, so the statue should come down.

In his opinion piece, Yale historian David Blight argues that another monument that contains racist imagery should not be removed, although some, such as Representative Eleanor Holmes Norton, have called for its removal. Blight points out that the context of this monument, The Freedmen’s Memorial in Washington, makes it worthy of being preserved. Rather than being is a Confederate monument, this is an emancipation memorial. Depicting a black man kneeling at Lincoln’s feet whose chains are being broken and who is seemingly being given freedom by Lincoln, the tableau “was and is racist.

The monument, however, was built by $20,000 raised by black Americans, most of whom were former slaves. And the dedication ceremonies on April 14, 1876, a day declared a federal holiday for it, included “a huge parade involving nearly every black organization in the city,” a poem by a young black (woman) poet from DC, and speeches, including a brilliant one, “one of the greatest of his life,” by Frederick Douglass, “the orator of the day.”

Douglass had a captive audience of the full government which “no African American speaker had ever faced . . . or would do so again until Barack Obama’s inauguration as president in 2009.” And he presented his arguments with blunt honesty: that Lincoln was not the man or model for blacks, a white man in his habits of thoughts and in his prejudices, including his early advocacy to remove blacks from the country as a solution after emancipation. Lincoln, though, had changed and did arrive at emancipation.

However, Reconstruction was failing and his audience and the country “had little time to act to save the great results of the war. Douglass brilliantly recruited Lincoln’s memory to the cause of black equality and rights.”

In a recent NPR interview for this year’s July 4th, Blight spoke about another earlier, but equally famous, speech given by Douglass on Independence Day of 1852 in Rochester, NY. In this “rhetorical masterpiece,” Douglass, detailed the horrors of slavery and bluntly blasted the audience for the “American secular and religious hypocrisy” for its practice. And it was “a great warning that if the country doesn’t find a way to face this problem, it will face tremendous disruption, tremendous violence.” The current crisis, Blight argues, is the legacy of this failure to deal with the issue of race and racism in America, in the 19th as well as the 20th century.

In a NY Times article on the toppling of Soviet statues in Russia, observers noted that in most cases, there was an emotional release, but “it changed nothing” in most cases because there was no honest reckoning and conversations, so divisions widened and statues became totems of identity.

Though some people fear that the same fate may happen with this crisis, that the focus on statues will take away from the more important discussions about systemic racism, there is some small hope in Robinson’s faith that we can decide “together which must go and which can stay.” These examples include the statue of William Carter Wickham in Richmond and the 150th commemoration of the surrender at Appomattox. Though they somewhat predate the current debate, they illustrate how discussion and the willingness to confront racism in the past can bridge racism in the present.

The Wickham statue was toppled in June 2020 by people protesting the killing of George Floyd, but his white descendants had already requested in 2017 that the statue be removed. As related on Lemon’s podcast, they had begun to come to terms with Wickham’s racism as well as to connect with their black cousins, descendants of Wickham and the six children he had with one of his slaves.

The blog post on rethinking the legacy of Appomattox relates how the National Historic Park staff wanted the 2015 celebration to look different from 100th and 125th events “[which] were largely ‘white’ events, with white people commemorating a white-only history.”

Working in partnership with African American community historians, they developed through research and discussions a celebration that recognized the some 5,000 members of seven United States Colored Troop that were present at Appomattox at the surrender and that “more than 50% of the population of Appomattox was of African descent, and mostly enslaved.” Thus making interpretations from a black perspective was critical to understanding the history of Appomattox:  “it is not enough to want to have inclusive history, and it’s not enough to create interpretation for a minority community. What actually got African Americans in the park was doing interpretation with their community.”

In 1931, Carl Becker, president of the American Historical Association, said “History is what the present chooses to remember about the past.”

We have the opportunity to decide what we will remember about the past: the visual rhetorics of the false narratives and symbolism of Confederate statues and a Confederate flag (that never represented the Confederacy, but was actually a battle banner)? Or an inclusive history— argued today by Robinson and Blight and by Douglass more than 150 years ago—that confronts the racist “myths and alternative histories of one America so that we can work together, as Blight urges, for new learning [that] can take place by the presence of both past and present.” So, rather than take down the Freedman’s Monument, develop alternative contemporary responses to the statue and the history to place alongside it.

(For further information: Lexico.com on monumental; Robinson essay; Blight essay; Don Lemon podcast; Douglass Freedmen’s Monument speech; Blight NPR interview; Douglass Fourth of July speech; NPR’s Douglass speech read by descendants; NY Times Toppling of Soviet statues;  Legacy-of-Appomattox post.)

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