Tearing Down History

This is an era of symbols toppling, of false facades crumbling, of formerly unimpeachable reputations cast in the dust. We’ve seen statues of slavers toppled into harbors, “explorers” and “rebels” beheaded and scrawled with graffiti. 

The loudest objection against the toppling of these statues is “you’ll forget history!” A silly concept if you’ve ever spoken to any random sampling of Americans about history. Remembering history is not our strong suit in the first place, and statues don’t exactly serve as the mnemonic these objectors seem to think they do. 

But let’s say for the sake of argument that they are correct. That we will “forget history.” What’s so wrong with that? Many of us long to forget a “history” that writes the murderers and rapists and architects of genocide as the heroes. We want to forget the vapid lessons of “pilgrims and indians” or the cute poetry that reminds us “in 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue.” We crave a real accounting-one that is grimy and honest and includes the real story of our ancestors–be they slave or slaver, because we don’t want to continue a dishonest charade that buried the real truth of history beneath the tombstone of a “respectable” bronze monument. 

Statue topplers know their actions are incendiary– they want to open up this can of worms and overthrow the mythology represented by that dubious art. They want to deal with what has been left unsaid for far too long. They are not anti-art, rather the message is, ‘Give us a place to feel history’s ugliness and in doing so, wash our souls clean with the truth.’ 

Today I read a comment on social media in defense of the statues that said “we are trying to judge a person from the 1400’s by the standards of the 2000’s,” which triggered something in my memory. I went and found the words of Christopher Columbus’s contemporary regarding the actions of Columbus’ men: 

Bartolome De Las Casas, a former slave owner who became Bishop of Chiapas, described these exploits. “Such inhumanities and barbarisms were committed in my sight as no age can parallel,” he wrote. “My eyes have seen these acts so foreign to human nature that now I tremble as I write.”

Many journalists and artists and monuments builders are already doing the work of giving us the history we so desperately need, in things like The 1619 Project and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, which honors the victims of lynching. That they are rewarded for their efforts with virulent opposition is proof that the version of history that chose to laud slavers and murderers and rapists is still alive and well. It is not frozen in bronze or marble, we are writing it even now.

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