I took a trip to Germany years ago. One of the places we stopped was a cemetery. The person I was with commented on all the swastikas on the graves of the WWII soldiers. As Americans, standing there looking on these graves, that symbol felt wrong to see anywhere. But in a place of mourning, a place that had always been a place of mourning, these scattered graves of local people, who had died in that horrific time, serving that horrific regime, bearing that hated mark, it made sense.
I doubt anyone will ever want to go back through every graveyard in Germany and elsewhere that nazi soliders and sympathizers died, and chip off every swastika. I suppose it could be done, maybe it should be done, but it would take funding, and family approval, and town approval and . . . really all you feel in that place is sadness already. Sadness that someone, anyone, ever fought and died in such a worthless cause as hate, racism, and national socialist whackjob-ism.
When I think about Confederate symbols in graveyards, I feel the same way about them. Lives lost over such an immoral, obscenely worthless cause. But I don’t feel that way about Confederate symbols in public places. I think those symbols should be removed and replaced with symbols of hope. Emancipation Park shouldn’t have a statue of General Robert E Lee. It should have a symbol of the Great Emancipator, Lincoln. Or of Harriet Tubman, whose emancipated so many.
I speak as someone who loves history and has a degree in it. I also speak as an artist. Now is the time to remove bronze statues, to give them to artists of today to melt down and create something new to go on those empty plinths. Now is the time to give those cenotaphs to sculptors to chip away at and remake into something new. Now is the time, for today’s artists, and today’s historians, to join up and transform these places and with outdated, prejudiced, oppressive symbols in to symbols of our time, symbols of truth, of hope, of aspirations not yet met.
Why can’t Rosa Parks replace Robert E Lee on that plinth? Why can’t Rebecca Lee Crumpler stand tall on a campus quad? Why can’t we celebrate the achievements and progress of our country, of people of color, where once there was a symbol of intimation and oppression? Why can’t a statue of Former Justice Thurgood Marshall (of Brown v Board of Education) stand where Former Justice Roger Tany (of Dred Scott) did?
Why can’t we start to do this now?
Nature abhors a vacuum. I call on you, artists and historians. Let’s create the future now, by celebrating a past that also actually happened, and was good and inspiring and uplifting, not just for people of color but all people. Let’s not leave an empty plinth, a hole in the ground, or a space for a plaque on a monument to be ceded to a new version of racism and intolerance.
I call on cities and counties, states and communities. I call on people to form committees, to get this important work, in this critical time, accomplished. Let the dead, who buried their Confederate soldier and sympathizer dead, and are now themselves dead, lie. Their time is over. They are dust, as we all must someday be.
But in our public spheres, alive and vibrant, let we the living create new art, alive and vibrant, so that 100 or 150 years from now, those monuments will still stand tall and remind living people of the future, of people who lived in times past and whose lives deserve to be remembered and celebrated still, not just by Americans of color, but by all Americans who pass by.
To destroy what is bad of the past is good, but what really matters is what you create in it’s place. What really matters, is what comes after.