A Different Kind of Bad Memorial

Good intentions aren’t always enough.

Hey, There,

(hey, I did say that these might come out at the rate of one per month occasionally)

So as the entire country processes, well, everything, a lot of attention has shifted to monuments. And I’m happy to see it! I’m 100% in favor of every Confederate monument coming down, and cheered when I saw the video of the Christopher Columbus statue in St. Paul coming down. I was less thrilled to hear that a statue of Ulysses S. Grant had been pulled down, but I do understand the impetus (and we’ll be getting back to that). And, for the record, I think Mt. Rushmore is an obscenity, a national-scale piece of graffiti defacing a Dakota holy site (and in the process, putting forward a mixed-at-best slate of presidents to honor).

Overall, I think it’s great that we as a society are taking a moment to think about monuments and what they mean; we often don’t, and just accept them as part of the civic landscape (and then just subconsciously load up their messages without much scrutiny). I said a while back that street art is a city’s conversation with itself; monuments are a variation on that. They’re concrete manifestations of the agenda a civic power structure wants to put forward. They’re the preferred attitude of the powers that be made solid.

And that idea undergirds the argument against having any Confederate monuments around: it’s not good in any way to have any kind of official (or quasi-official) civic sanction for “these guys who fought for slavery are our avatars of greatness;” way to send a very clear, shitty message to a city’s residents of color. But to be honest, those monuments aren’t what I wanted to talk about here. Instead, I wanted to talk about a monument with the exact opposite polarity, but its own set of severe problems.

The Emancipation Memorial stands in Washington, DC, and was dedicated in 1876, when emancipation was still a relatively recent phenomenon. Sculpted by Thomas Ball, it shows Abraham Lincoln standing over a black man, who is rising from his knees and has broken chains on his wrists. Lincoln holds a copy of the Emancipation Proclamation.

And: it is extremely good and worthy of commemoration that emancipation happened (although it’s that particular kind of good thing that was really more accurately the cessation of a terrible thing). But this is a very bad memorial, problematic as hell. If you want to talk about encoded white supremacy, a statue honoring the freedom of Black people that shows a Black man literally cowering at the feet of his white savior is a top-shelf example. Monuments of this type usually depict someone as a hero; here, it’s Lincoln, with the unnamed, identity-less Black man serving as second fiddle in his own damned memorial.

And let me be clear: I think a lot of Abraham Lincoln (although I don’t like the way he’s memorialized here or on Mt. Rushmore). I think, with the usual caveats*, that he was probably the US’ greatest president (it’s him or FDR, and FDR also has a big trunk full of caveats). But a celebration of emancipation shouldn’t be about him. He’s not the point. The Emancipation Proclamation wasn’t even the end of slavery in the United States; the 13th Amendment was.

*One caveat being that it’s basically impossible to find a 19th century American government figure who doesn’t have a terrible record with Native rights. As president, Lincoln presided over a mass execution of Native Americans after the Minnesota Dakota conflict of 1862. When I was hedging my bets on Grant earlier, that’s the main context, too: I extremely approve of Grant’s Civil-War-winning skills, and of his eight years of actually using federal power to guarantee the safety and rights of Black citizens in the south; but that sits alongside the Grant administration’s just shrugging and looking the other way when white settlers violated a treaty to flood into the Black Hills once gold was discovered there, a land grab that eventually also led to Mt. Rushmore.

Frederick Douglass, a man who would brook no bullshit

At the monument’s dedication Frederick Douglass put voice to some of this, noting that “Abraham Lincoln was not, in the fullest sense of the word, either our man or our model. In his interests, in his associations, in his habits of thought, and in his prejudices, he was a white man." Douglass also wrote shortly afterwards to the National Republican newspaper, focusing in more tightly on the problematic nature of the monument’s composition: ““The negro here, though rising, is still on his knees and nude. What I want to see before I die is a monument representing the negro, not couchant on his knees like a four-footed animal, but erect on his feet like a man.” (there are sometimes cases where a problematic piece can be defended or mitigated with “it’s of its time” arguments, but when Frederick Douglass is calling out the bullshit as the monument’s being dedicated, that argument doesn’t hold water).

Fundamentally, this monument uses the fact of emancipation to honor Lincoln, with an anonymous Black man as a prop to do so. And this is bad, centering the actions of the white man while demeaning the Black one. I think this is worth keeping in mind: that well-meaning white people can make what they think are positive, inclusive gestures (“what could be more inclusive than honoring EMANCIPATION?!?!?”) and be thoughtlessly demeaning in the process.

In our current moment of giving some thought to what the monuments are saying, there’ an effort to have this one removed. The New York Times quotes a DC activist, Marcus Goodwin, echoing Frederick Douglass: ““The meaning is degrading. To see my ancestors at the feet of Lincoln — it’s not imagery that inspires African-Americans to see themselves as equal in this society.” The current US administration being what it is, I think the odds of it coming down through official channels anytime soon are pretty long. But as we’ve seen, there are other ways for monuments to come down.

In the meantime: keep an eye out in your city for what’s being memorialized,  and be ready to raise some ruckus if there’s something toxic being pushed.

Right on. Be safe.


RECOMMENDATION

I know of no finer comics than Jaime Hernandez’s half of Love and Rockets (Beto’s half is very good, but Jaime’s stuff is almost perfect). Particularly the stuff collected in The Girl From H.O.P.P.E.R.S., which starts out as tough-to-penetrate comics about female pro wrestlers but quickly and seamlessly moves into deeply felt, keenly-observed stories about young people, mostly Mexican-American, in southern California in the 80s, often moving in and out of the punk scene. The comics are humane and entertaining and hilarious and surreal and beautifully drawn and, honestly, there just isn’t much better out there.


SOME LINKS

Speaking of tearing down monuments, did you miss it when Tricia Lockwood took a chainsaw to John Updike?

Or maybe you should spend some quarantime making vegan sausage.


CLOSING STUFF

OK, so here at the bottom, sorry for the ragged copy editing; my deal with myself was to keep this fast and loose, which is gonna mean typos. On the other hand, that also means it’ll actually come out, instead of being obsessed over.

If you have any thoughts/reactions/what have you about this, I’d love to hear about it, either by email or on Twitter. And if you know anybody who might dig this, please forward it on to them, or send ‘em the signup link! And thanks!