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Rethinking Historical Monuments

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The vast majority of American historical monuments were constructed between about 1880 and 1930 or so. This means that most of them in some way reflect white supremacy, truly a bipartisan and national belief in these years. We’ve paid a ton of attention to dismantling Civil War monuments in recent years and this is great. But really, the problem is deeper. There are all sorts of monuments that either minimize or erase not only African-Americans, but Native Americans. What do we do about this? What should monuments commemorate? Do we have an obligation to leave them up forever? What should be replace them with? These are knotty questions. Here’s a fascinating article about all of this in, based on what is going on in Chicago.

The stately eagle atop the 50-foot-tall fluted column of the Illinois Centennial Monument can be seen from blocks away. Located in the gentrifying Logan Square neighborhood on Chicago’s North Side, the memorial was designed by Henry Bacon and Evelyn Beatrice Longman and built in 1918 as an allegorical representation of the history of Illinois. Representational friezes line the column’s circular podium: On one side, the monument’s base offers abstract personifications of Chicago arts, agriculture and industry; the other side depicts an early contact between Indigenous people and Europeans. A Native American man wearing a feathered war bonnet stands while a woman looks back at a robed missionary clutching a cross. The look in her eyes is somewhere between a wary gaze and a confrontational glower. 

It’s a vision of colonization that might be more nuanced than those you’ll find in many of the city’s monuments, but it’s still a source of controversy locally. For one, the Indigenous man pictured is “wearing the wrong headdress,” says Santiago X, an Indigenous artist and architect based in Chicago. (The strikethrough in his name is intentional.) “They’re wearing the wrong clothes.” 

Andrew Schneider, president of local preservation group Logan Square Preservation, defends the monument as a beloved local landmark. “It’s an iconic image of Logan Square,” he says. “The people that live here have a real attachment to it, and that cuts across all racial and socio-economic classes.” 

The centennial monument and 40 others are now under the equally critical gaze of the Chicago Monuments Project, an advisory committee of civic leaders, artists, designers, academics, and culture workers (including X) tasked with re-evaluating how the city handles its stock of monuments (which Schneider says he supports). The city formed the committee in the wake of the uprisings against racist police violence in July 2020. During a demonstration at Grant Park against a monument to Christopher Columbus, police assaulted journalists and activists; within days, Mayor Lori Lightfoot had statues of Columbus in Grant Park and Little Italy removed “temporarily.” To come up with long-term policies for monumentalization, the advisory committee began meeting in September and tentatively hope to release a set of recommendations by late June. 

The official charge of the project is to “[call] out the hard truths of our history — especially as they relate to racism and oppression,” because “telling a true and inclusive history is important, as is addressing who gets to tell those stories in public space. Our priority is to address ignored, forgotten and distorted histories.”

No other American city has opened up this sort of wide-ranging dialogue about how cities make monuments. Swept up in this inquiry are five statues of Abraham Lincoln, as well as monuments to George Washington, Ulysses S. Grant, and the Italian Fascist Italo Balbo. The 41 items under discussion are just a small percentage of the hundreds of monuments in the city, but committee co-chair Bonnie McDonald, president of Landmarks Illinois, says the work of the committee is just a start. She’s asking for public participation on how current memorials should be handled, as well an in the commissioning of new monuments. 

And this I found super good:

That accountability is central to Lee’s work in the grassroots effort to establish a new Chicago memorial — this one marking the victims of police torture in the city. But the gap between rhetoric, intention and execution for the project has meant long delays that underscore the resistance to accepting new narratives about monuments and culture.

From the 1970s to the 1990s, Chicago Police Commander John Burge and his infamous “Midnight Crew” tortured at least 100 Black men into false confessions. In 2015, the city agreed to pursue a package of reforms, pay $5.5 million in reparations, establish a Chicago Public Schools curriculum about the torture, and issue a formal apology, becoming the first municipality in the nation to endorse reparations for racist police violence. As part of that resolution, the city also promised to fund a permanent memorial to the victims of police torture. 

The Chicago Torture Justice Memorials (CTJM) Project arranged several exhibitions calling for public input, uniting survivors, activists and South Side residents through a radically democratic process. “That process of stepping back and inviting everyone to contribute their creativity, their imagination, the desire to work for justice really opened up a process,” says Joey Mogul, CTJM co-founder. “It invited different members of the public beyond lawyers, legal workers and organizers.” The task for CTJM is to communicate “the horror and the pain and the generational trauma that occurred, while also [making] sure we acknowledge people’s agency and resistance,” says Mogul. 

It’s a multi-layered brief that requires the ambiguity of abstraction to represent. The final design, selected by a jury of torture survivors, artists, activists, cultural workers, architects, educators and philanthropists, is by Chicago artist Patricia Nguyen and architectural designer John Lee. Called “Breath, Form, and Freedom,” it’s a concrete, circular pavilion bisected by a wall with an open courtyard at its center. 

I can think of little more powerful than a memorial remembering the endless racist brutality of the Chicago police.

These are the conversations that all cities should have. They aren’t always easy. They are always necessary. And they require us to rethink our easily held assumptions as white liberals. Do we keep up a statue to William Tecumseh Sherman because he helped end the Civil War or do we tear it down because of his active and vigorous support of genocide, just to mention one thorny one.

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