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Memorializing Jefferson?

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As we have debates over historical memory, one of the trickiest figures in Thomas Jefferson. Who embodies both the potential and the hypocrisy of this nation more than he? In New York, there’s a big ol’ statue of TJ in City Hall. It’s now being taken down:

For more than 100 years, a 7-foot-tall statue of Thomas Jefferson has towered over members of the New York City Council in their chamber at City Hall.

The statue has stood by for generations of policy debates, thousands of bills passed and a city budget that has soared to roughly $100 billion. It has also withstood another test of time: Two decades ago, a call to banish the statue gained attention, but went nowhere.

But as the country continues the slow and painful process of determining who deserves to be memorialized in shared public spaces, the removal of the Jefferson statue is receiving far more serious consideration.

The Public Design Commission is expected on Monday to vote on and likely approve a long-term loan of the statue to the New-York Historical Society, after the City Council’s Black, Latino and Asian Caucus requested that the statue be removed.

The vote is part of a broad, nationwide reckoning over racial inequality highlighted by the murder of George Floyd, the racial disparities further revealed by the coronavirus pandemic, and the sometimes violent debate over whether Confederate monuments should be toppled and discarded.

Though Jefferson, one of the nation’s founding fathers, wrote about equality in the Declaration of Independence, he enslaved more than 600 people and fathered six children with one of them, Sally Hemings.

“How the hell can people see as a hero someone who had hundreds of enslaved Africans, someone who was a racist and who said we were inferior and someone who was a slaveholding pedophile?” said Assemblyman Charles Barron, the former councilman who tried to get the statue removed in 2001. “For him to be canonized in a statue is incredible — incredibly racist.”

I won’t argue against the point.

The bigger issue is that every generation has both the right and the responsibility to think about how they interpret the nation’s past. Just because someone in 1915 loved Jefferson doesn’t mean we need to in 2021. Statues and other forms of historical memory say nothing about the person or event. They say everything about the people who chose to remember that person or event at a given time. We don’t have to respect those decisions today. Taking down the statue is fine.

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