Statues and Skeletons

It’s been a bad year to be a statue.

All around the country, monuments are coming down. What started out as a fairly unsurprising movement targeting controversial figures such as Robert E. Lee and Christopher Columbus has rapidly—and as far as I’m concerned, unexpectedly—extended to the likes of Ulysses S. Grant, Teddy Roosevelt, and George Washington—not to mention a whole bunch of other characters whose names you’d probably have to Google to even know who they were. (Dick Dowling, anyone?)

Obviously this has ruffled some feathers. And I get it. It’s hard to see the heroes of our history books suddenly demonized, their images defaced and dismounted from their proud places of public display. It feels like our heritage as a nation is being attacked.

But at the same time, I fully understand why it’s happening. For many in our country, these monuments represent a tacit approval of all sorts of ugly things—racism, slavery, colonialism, violence. Can any of us really blame a black citizen for not wanting to walk beneath General Lee’s cold, stony gaze every single day on the way to the office? Surely there’s a case to be made for the retirement of such monstrosities.

The debate is a contentious one, and I don’t foresee it dying down anytime soon. But in the midst of all the controversy, my deepest concern isn’t about which chunks of marble are the latest to get pulled down. My concern arises from a much more fundamental question, a question that I don’t hear many people asking: How do we actually deal with the ugly parts of our shared history, as opposed to just erasing them?

At the heart of this movement, I believe, is a sense of collective guilt. Deep down, we’re unsettled about our past—as well we should be. Land stolen from its original inhabitants. Fields planted by the hands of slaves. Violence exported to all parts of the world. When we turn around from our position of relative comfort and prosperity, we see a trail of blood in our wake. Guilt is a perfectly natural response.

But the problem is that we aren’t very good at knowing what to do about it. Some of us try to drown our guilt with enthusiastic demonstrations of patriotism and really loud fireworks. But for an increasing number of us, this simply isn’t a viable option. So what do we do? Well, among other things, we throw bricks and buckets of red paint at the granite likenesses of long-deceased slave owners. It feels like an almost sacramental form of national cleansing. It’s as if we’re purging ourselves of years of societal sin. But as cathartic as it might feel in the moment, ultimately I’m afraid that we’re still failing to get to the root of the issue. We’re not actually addressing our guilt; we’re merely bypassing it. 

To use a word admittedly fraught with religious baggage, we’re failing to repent.

In the weeks since George Floyd’s death, this viral interview with a neighbor of L.A.’s mayor remains one of my favorite things to hit the internet: 

I love how this gentleman so winsomely points out that the “original sins” of our country have never been dealt with in an honest way. We’ve just sort of moved on (or at least, we’ve pretended to), and now we’re experiencing the effects of that negligence.

But true repentance isn’t just about moving on. Quite the opposite, actually. True repentance is about going back and confronting our original sins head-on. Rather than ignoring or overlooking or deleting the past, repentance seeks to own it. To acknowledge it. To take responsibility for it. Repentance is an expression of humility. It admits that we have done wrong, we have hurt others, and we need to submit ourselves to the forgiveness of our victims.

What does such a process look like for America today? I’m not entirely sure. But I think there are hopeful glimpses of possibility from initiatives such as the National Memorial for Peace and Justice and its recently launched Community Remembrance Project. Here you have a movement to actually erect monuments in connection to local manifestations of violent racism—not to glorify that racism, however, but to grieve it. The idea is that individual counties where lynchings have taken place are invited to set up personalized monuments that are meant to “stand as a symbolic reminder of the community’s continuing efforts to truthfully grapple with painful racial history, challenge injustice where it exists in their own lives, and vow never to repeat the terror and violence of the past.” In other words, these monuments are designed to be tangible expressions of communal repentance: owning the past and actively turning away from it.

Would the toppling of statues play a role in such a national process of communal repentance? Absolutely. I’m in full agreement that General Lee’s gotta go. But as a country with more than our fair share of skeletons in the closet, merely removing the reminders won’t actually make those incriminating old bones go away. We need a much more thorough process of holistic healing.

In this unique moment of American history, I truly believe that something wonderfully subversive is afoot. The voices of the oppressed and marginalized are finally being heard, and I can see meaningful change on the horizon. But let’s not pop the bottle of champagne and celebrate our progress quite yet. Before we can leap forward into a promisingly bright future, we first need to come to terms with an uncomfortably dark past.

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