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On Complicated Statues

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BOSTON, MA – JUNE 2: The Abraham Lincoln statue, 1879, by Thomas Ball in Park Square in Boston, is pictured on Jun. 2, 2017. (Photo by David L. Ryan/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

This is a fascinating time. I’ve been calling for our racist statues to be taken down for a long time and now it is finally happening at an incredibly rapid pace. This is leading to the natural debate about how far we should go. What about George Washington and Thomas Jefferson? What about statues of pretty good people like Abraham Lincoln when the statue itself is kind of awful. Take this statue in Boston, pictured above.

“I’ve been watching this man on his knees since I was a kid. It’s supposed to represent freedom, but instead represents us still beneath someone else,” Bullock wrote in the online petition. “I would always ask myself, ‘if he’s free, why is he still on his knees?’ No kid should have to ask themselves that question anymore.” 

In a Facebook video last week, Bullock called on Boston Mayor Marty Walsh (D) to remove the statute or change it somehow to show the black man standing on his own two feet and clothed. 

Walsh, who declared racism a public health crisis in the city Friday, is in favor of removing the statue and possibly replacing it with something that recognizes equality, and is willing to engage in talks about its future in Boston, according to The Boston Globe. 

The statue is a replica of the original Emancipation Memorial, also known as the Freedman’s Memorial, dedicated in Washington, D.C., in 1876 and was funded with money donated by former slaves. 

This one is complicated. The statue is patronizing to say the least. It also indeed a replica of the Freedmen’s Memorial. On the other hand, the conditions of Black life in 1876, just as Reconstruction was being destroyed by white violence or indifference, required such a monument to make whites feel better about their history. I’m certainly fine with getting rid of it. But it’s not a clear call.

Monmouth University renaming its Wilson Hall, named after Woodrow Wilson, certainly makes sense given Wilson’s horrifying racism. Activists in Eugene taking down the pioneer statues on campus is also something I strongly support. The racism of these statues, not to mention white Northwesterners love for their pioneer past, is inherently white supremacist. For that matter, there’s a MoveOn petition right now to rename Lane County, where Eugene is. Joseph Lane was an Oregon pioneer and a secessionist, John C. Breckinridge’s VP choice in 1860. I mean, what a scumbag. Moreover, he was accused of keeping a slave at his home in 1878. Given that there was a lot of Native slavery still happening around the margins in the Northwest and California through the 1870s, this is entirely possible. Speaking of such things, the statue of John Sutter in Sacramento can go too.

Now, this takes us to the toppling of the Grant statue in San Francisco. No, this was not a great move. But I think it needs to be seen in the context of people seeing so much racist history around them everyday. You can’t really expect every activist caught up in the heat of the moment to know all of history’s details. The accusation is that Grant was a slaveholder. That is, briefly, true. His father-in-law gifted Grant and Julia slaves when they were married, but they were freed relatively soon after. But I think the context matters and I endorse this position:

In a revolutionary time, a few eggs will be broken.

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