Preserving Racism or Preserving History?

By Margaret Randall | September 10, 2020

In the 1940s and ’50s, when I was growing up in Albuquerque, New Mexico, monuments to the Pioneer Mother graced public parks in many western cities. They had a traditional aesthetic; the mother with her bonnet and long skirt swirling about her ankles seemed to be in the midst of taking a determined stride. She often carried an infant in her arms and had two or more young children at her feet. Most of the sculptors who produced these statues were mediocre at best. I have yet to see one that can be considered great art. Still, I remember being moved by Albuquerque’s “Madonna of the Trail” as she was called. As a young middle-class white girl just coming into womanhood in the stifling 1950s, I often stopped to gaze at her in one of the city’s downtown parks.

“Madonna of the Trail,” Albuquerque, New Mexico.

The monument bore an inscription plate that spoke of the courage and fortitude of those women who “opened up the west.” Nowhere did it mention the westward thrust’s encroachment on and abuse of Native inhabitants nor the crimes committed in the name of colonization. I discovered the sordid side of this history as I grew older, and as a young adult began to be able to situate my country’s westward exploration within an expansionist and racist framework. But the pioneer woman retained her courage in my eyes. I knew she had faced untold hardships. And I already intuited that women in the westward push, just like women in all situations and throughout history, suffer because of a misogynist culture and gender inequities. I also knew that the pioneer woman’s story was but a single strand of those that make up the fabric of my country’s past.

“Victory of Samothrace.”

Looking back, I understand that I can only explain the pioneer woman’s impact on me by referencing my emotional response. Years before, as a very small female child, I had gazed up at the imposing stone figure of the Greek Victory of Samothrace on loan to a New York City museum and placed atop its broad staircase. The statue’s glorious wings and forward thrust of body spoke to me of my own incipient longings, the life I would be able to create if I could access my inner power. The pioneer woman evoked in me this same sense of possibility, empowerment in a world in which my gender was treated as a liability.

Black Lives Matter protesters, 2020.

In the spring of 2020, following the most recent in a very long list of crimes in which mostly Black men and women were summarily murdered by mostly white police, an anti-racist protest movement exploded across the United States. Led by Black Lives Matter, thousands poured into the streets and have stayed there far longer than previous movements. The protestors are tired of promises. They are demanding change. They want city and state governments to defund out of control police departments and they advocate for community oversight of law and order. In more general terms they are rebelling against a neofascist and profoundly racist government.

This movement and its offshoots have turned our attention to the multiple symbols of racism in our society. These include popular commercial brands such as Aunt Jemima Pancake Mix made by Quaker Oats, Uncle Ben’s Rice, Eskimo Pies made by Nestle, and Chiquita Banana, that have long portrayed African Americans and other minorities in stereotypical ways: the slave mammy, Inuit inhabitants of igloos, and sexualized Latina women. Fearing loss of revenue, the companies selling these products are finally complying with demands that they change their presentation of these products—after decades of unsuccessful efforts to get them to do so.

Protestors also issued a call to major athletic teams, demanding that they drop mascots like Redskins, Chiefs and Savages that are insulting to Native Americans. And they began looking at the thousands of statues across our land that idealize southern Civil War heroes, conquistadors who decimated our Indian population and others who symbolize racist or colonialist attitudes. This isn’t the first instance of activists advocating for the removal of such statues. But this time the chorus is louder, and action is following words with some notable results.

Reforming US police departments is urgent. Most such departments teach their officers to be needlessly aggressive. They use weaponry discarded by a military that is forever developing newer and more deadly war materiel. Too few departments even pretend to teach methods aimed at deescalating extreme situations or offer sensitivity training through which tensions can be addressed in ways that are safer for all. Changing the racist names of brands and sports teams is also on the agenda in many places for reasons of commercial viability; with so many protesting the companies owning these brands, they fear a sizeable loss of profit.

The Trump administration has responded to these broad-based protests by sending mercenary armies into several cities. Trump calls this “Operation Diligent Valor,” in line with his bizarre use of language designed to make his initiatives sounds like their polar opposites. This isn’t the first time he’s done this. Protestors successfully stopped South Dakota’s Keystone Pipeline and President Obama abandoned the project. But Trump reversed Obama’s decision and, when protests started again, sent federal agents to intimidate and assault them. Now Trump is at it again. He started the experiment in Portland, Oregon, where the protests were particularly strong and sustained. When violence was perpetrated not by the protestors but by these Trump “brown shirts,” Oregon’s governor managed to expel the federal forces. But the administration is clearly trying out new mechanisms of control to see how far it can go with pushing federal power. These unofficial troops have also invaded other cities, including Albuquerque where I live.

Black Lives Matter protester statue in Bristol, England.

Despite this, the protests continue. And some degree of change is happening. This includes the removal of racist monuments and statues. Because I believe this removal is more complicated, I would like to explore it in detail.

Most statues of Jefferson Davis, the president of our short-lived Confederacy, or Robert E. Lee, the general who led the southern troops to defeat in our Civil War, were erected in the immediate aftermath of that conflict, when those who funded and built them wanted to remind the public that, despite the loss of the Confederacy, the idea of owning slaves was still deeply embedded in their cultural consciousness. Or they were erected later in the 19th century by the United Daughters of the Confederacy.(1) The statues were meant to intimidate. Emancipation was the law of the land on paper, but discrimination in all its forms would be with us for generations, and those monuments wouldn’t let the descendants of slaves forget it. A century and a half after humans kidnapped in Africa and brought to the US as slave labor were freed, Black Americans continue to suffer many sorts of segregation, unequal poverty, police brutality, inferior educations, the lowest paid jobs and least accessible health care. Black males today are 34% of our prison population, but Black men and women are only 13.4% of the general population.

Statues to the heroes of the Confederacy are symbolic of this racist reality. Every Black person who has to pass one on their way to work each day is reminded that white America, by and large, continues to consider them second-class citizens. The same is true for the military who train or work on bases bearing the names of racist heroes; it is a constant reminder that they are expected to be willing to die for their country while being forced to honor the historic figures who believed them inferior.

Does white America solve its race problem by changing names and removing statures? It’s a start, but we need much more than that. We need education, and we need to stop othering stigmatized groups, thus preventing them from voicing their experience on a par with everyone else. We need education that includes real history and critical thinking, a frank national conversation about race, and a government dedicated to finding solutions rather than perpetuating stereotypes and punishing minorities. But is it not also dangerous for us to erase the embarrassing or criminal chapters in our history, to pretend they never happened, and to continue to avoid discussing them in any useful way? Right-wingers call the removal of statues “cancel culture”; it is their way of disguising their racist intentions, arguing that they have only the preservation of history at heart so the statues and brand labels and team names and other remnants of racist culture should endure.

Some of the figures whose names adorn public monuments are difficult to regard as all good or all bad. Christopher Columbus, for example, was a great explorer as well as the man we credit with imposing a colonialist culture on the original peoples of this land. Other countries, too, have similar problems. Lenin developed a sociopolitical and economic system that is arguably fairer to the vast majority of people. But revolution also attempted to do away with class stratification and meant death for many. The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989-90 brought with it the immediate demolition of busts and statues of Lenin. Now, after years of corrupt capitalism, some of these are being returned to their pedestals.

There are examples, of course, of figures who were so evil that there is no question that removing all public tribute to them is socially healthy. Hitler would be one, Pol Pot another. In New Mexico where I live there were several large statues of Juan de Oñate, a 16th century conquistador who marched into the territory plundering and murdering the natives on behalf of Crown and Cross. In 1598, Oñate cut the right foot off of young men at Acoma Pueblo and sent several dozen young women to Mexico City as slaves. At the height of the 2020 protests these Oñate statues were finally torn down, and the University of New Mexico removed Oñate’s name from one of its buildings. Some racist members of the conservative Hispanic community are angry about these changes. For anyone conscious of the crimes committed against Native Americans in this part of the country, the removals didn’t come soon enough. The 36-foot-tall statue of Oñate in El Paso, Texas has been called the largest equestrian statue in the world. In the face of protests over the years, and in an effort to placate its critics, its name was changed to “The Equestrian.” It has not yet been taken down, but protestors in June of 2020 did deface it with red paint which has since been removed.

In California we had statues honoring Junipero Serra, the principal architect of the California mission system during the era of Spanish colonization. Serra, who was born in 1713 and died in 1784, was a Franciscan who used forced Indian labor, beat and otherwise mistreated indigenous converts, and presided over a brutal colonialist subjugation from San Diego north. Nevertheless, Pope John Paul II beatified Serra in 1988 and Pope Francis canonized him in 2015. Statues of the saint proliferated. In the midst of the 2020 protests, about five dozen indigenous activists of all ages gathered at Father Serra Park in downtown Los Angeles. A Tataviam/Chumash elder named Alan Salazar burned sage and invoked the spirit of his ancestors. A group of young activists bound the statue of Serra with ropes and tore him from his base. Then they placed sage and other offerings where the statue had been and turned its empty pedestal into an altar to equality and hope for the future.

From 1966 to 1976 Chinese leader Mao Zedong launched what he called the Cultural Revolution, a period during which, in the name of doing away with bourgeois values, hundreds of thousands of intellectuals, artists and others who revered a cultural past lost their jobs, were sent to reeducation camps, forced into slave labor, imprisoned or killed. Children were urged to report on their parents. Even many Communist Party members suffered. Today in China there are at least two museums that I know of that tell a history of the period. The museum in Shantou honors the many who lost their lives during the Cultural Revolution. The current iteration of the Chinese Communist Party would seem to approve of the place. The sign at the entrance to this museum reads: “The Cultural Revolution was a Mistake.” Near the city of Chengdu, the Jianchuan Museum Cluster also marks the period in question, but it carries a narrower and more ambiguous reading of that siege of terror. On the four pillars that support the museum gate it says: “Remember war for peace. Remember lessons for the future. Remember disasters for serenity. Remember folk customs for heritage.” This would seem to imply that the horrors of the Cultural Revolution were necessary to bring about a serene and peaceful present.

There is no question in my mind that all aspects of our history must be preserved. The many monuments and museums dedicated to the mid-twentieth century Jewish Holocaust have certainly not prevented subsequent genocides, but they preserve a memory that is essential to our humanity. Auschwitz and other Nazi concentration camps became sites of remembrance shortly after the end of the war. Cambodia’s Killing Fields are memorialized in all their horror; the very site where the atrocities were perpetrated has been turned into a place of reverence. There are gardens and pagodas but also a temple filled with hundreds of skulls. When it rains, the earth bleeds bits of clothing, teeth and fragments of bone of the million and a half who were assassinated there. The memory of Latin America’s Dirty Wars of the 1970s and ’80s are preserved in moving monuments to the tens of thousands of Disappeared. Museums of Memory in Argentina, Uruguay, Chile and other Latin American countries display relics and photographs—and truth. For the survivors in all these places whose lives were forever altered by these atrocities, such memorials are necessary.

As our political scene changes, the popular sense of what these monuments, statues, team names, brands, and memorials mean may also change in the popular consciousness. Interpretation is rooted in the political culture that has power at any given time. It is visceral, imprinted on the DNA of those affected. Important questions are: If today’s protestors are rising up against discrimination and injustice— in the present as well as the past — are there ever instances in which the removal of a statue or monument goes too far, taking with it pieces of history that must be left in view in order to be understood? Should an understanding of right and wrong change as the political winds blow? Cannot human beings agree that colonialism, slavery, extermination camps, torture and mass murder are always wrong?

Of course, monuments and memorials always correspond to who is telling the story. I think of the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, DC. Maya Lin designed a powerful V-shaped black granite structure that emerges from the earth at either end as it rises to a high point at its apex. On this wall, as it is frequently called, are inscribed the names of the 58,000 US military personnel who died in Vietnam during that protracted and ultimately unpopular war. Relatives and friends come to contemplate their losses. Many make rubbings of the names of loved ones onto small squares of paper available for that purpose. People also leave offerings: everything from trinkets of one kind or another to flowers and poems. Visiting this monument is a participatory experience and one might call it a successful memorial.

But what of the Vietnamese who died in that long conflagration? Whole villages were firebombed by an invading army. Children were napalmed. Large areas of land were rendered barren for decades; nothing grew. No matter how meaningful the Vietnam War Memorial is to US citizens affected by that war, I would argue that all lives lost were precious. But I doubt if Maya Lin would have received the commission had she designed a monument honoring the Vietnamese as well as American dead.

And this really gets to the core of the issue: US soldiers in Vietnam were heroes to some but criminals to others. Or, if not criminals, then cannon fodder in the service of imperialist or genocidal wars. The Vietnamese patriots were considered our enemy by some but were defending their nation from invasion. It’s the dual significance of the monuments that creates the problem. If we simply accept them as good or bad, depending on our point of view, we are echoing an “us and them” discourse that keeps us from understanding history. This is why, whether we tear down the statues or remove them to a place where an analysis of their historic significance can be added to their display, we need an in-depth discussion that includes information about when they were erected, by whom, and for what purpose. It is the powerful of any era—the winners, the owners—who create these monuments. And when the people attack them, they are rebelling against those who erected the statues and against those today who continue their policies. The protestors are rising up against criminal power, which is a good thing. It is important that they don’t also, unwittingly or not, rise up against history.

Thinking about our Vietnam monument, I wondered if a war anywhere has been memorialized by honoring those lost on both sides. I found that there are two such monuments in the state of Kentucky. The Veteran’s Monument in Covington, erected in 1933, and the Confederate-Union Veterans’ Memorial at the Butler Country Courthouse in Morgantown, erected in 1907. These sites honor the fallen from both armies in our Civil War. Perhaps this was made possible by the fact that the Confederacy and the Union reunited as a single nation. In our fragmented and xenophobic world, it may be too much to ask that we pay tribute to the dead of two different countries in a single memorial.

For generations, Custer’s Last Stand and the sites of other battles between the US Army and Native Americans told only the white man’s story. In recent times Native tribes have added their versions of history or placed alternative memorials nearby. They have also been successful at getting a number of major museums to return sacred tribal artifacts and human remains. Despite these attempts at memory retrieval and rectification, the white man’s version of history remains predominant. It is almost always the one told in the history books, at site museums and on monuments.

There are many other ways in which stories remain incomplete in memorials to a particular historic event. President John F. Kennedy’s life is honored with a perpetual flame at his burial site at Arlington National Cemetery. It records when the man was assassinated, and the official history tells us where and who it is presumed pulled the trigger. But the details of this crime have long been covered up and disputed. Who hired Oswald? Were others involved? We may never know the answers to these questions and, even if we do, it is unlikely that they will be answered on a public memorial.

I applaud major athletic teams changing names that have offended for years. I am glad that companies such as Quaker Oats and Nestle are finally dropping commercial brand names that have stereotyped people far too long. But with regard to the statues I hope we don’t erase history in the name of righting historic wrongs. We need to acknowledge our past, fully and in all its complexity. It is the only way we may avoid committing the same crimes in the future. And it is the only way we can know who we truly are.

Removing statues bears an uneasy relationship to censorship and, like censorship, the issue isn’t always so clear cut. We deplore a Ku Klux Klan rally, for example, but may support its right to be held because we believe in freedom of expression; and if we prevent the expression of those ideas we hate, we know we may be prevented from expressing our own. On the other hand, some argue that removing offending statues is not censoring of history (as if history itself was valueless) but rather disqualifies telling history told in a myopic or prejudiced way. Such statues were not meant to reflect history but to honor and elevate one side of history over another.

I think of Cuba, where the Revolution has never permitted statues or even portraits of living leaders. During Fidel Castro’s life, no public office displayed his photograph and there were no monuments to him in public places. This was explained as avoiding a cult of personality like those that existed in China or North Korea. A cult of personality always exudes intimidation. Yet intimidation can take many forms, as with the statues of Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee throughout the southern United States. Such statues clearly speak differently to Black citizens than to white. The solution, it seems to me, must be tailored to each situation. We know we can only understand a person or event by being willing to listen to all opinions.

But simply listening to others is no longer enough. Our diverse response to the issue of statues and monuments teaches us that the way they affect us depends on who we are, how they make us feel more than what they make us think. It’s about emotional empathy. As a young female child, the Victory of Samothrace made me feel strong. As an adolescent just coming into womanhood, the pioneer woman made me feel I could overcome all obstacles. These were feelings, not social analyses. An African American living in Richmond, Virginia is going to have an entirely different experience walking past a statue of Robert E. Lee than I or any other white person will have. The African American is forced to confront an honoring of the man who led the army that defended those who owned his great great grandparents. Native Americans in California, confronted with a statue celebrating Junipero Serra, are going to feel the pain of the early Christian missions that enslaved their ancestors. Indian people in New Mexico know Juan de Oñate as the conquistador who maimed and killed theirs. This is about emotional empathy, something much deeper than political understanding or mouthing the words “I know how you feel.”

There is also the danger that if we remove a statue or change the name of a sports mascot or military base, we run the risk of believing we have dealt with our racism and solved the problem of offensive public displays. These gestures are important, but they are the beginning of a process, not its end.

We must find ways to have an ongoing public conversation about race that include learning empathy. We must explore the role time plays in shaping our cultural values, how different historic moments facilitate different readings of reality. We must look at power, how it is exercised and distributed. Strong religious influences often promote condescension, patronizing attitudes toward specific groups, resulting in some being considered inferior. We need to tear down the statues that offend but make places where they may be displayed with all sides of the story told and room for open discussion about the forces that created them. Only then can we begin the journey toward becoming a nation that feels like home to all.

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(1) The United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC) is an American hereditary association of Southern women established in Nashville, Tennessee in 1894. It has been labeled neo-Confederate by the Southern Poverty Law Center, which monitors hate groups and extremists.


Margaret Randall’s essay is from a new manuscript, Thinking About Thinking. Her recent books include I Never Left Home: Poet, Feminist, Revolutionary (Duke UP, 2020) and the Spanish-English bilingual edition of Estrellas de mar sobre una playa: los poemas de la pandemia / Starfish on a Beach: The Pandemic Poems (Escarabajo Editorial & Abisinia, tr. Sandra Toro, 2020).


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