Smashing Statues

I have a draft blog post from a few years ago where I tried to grapple with my thoughts about monumental statues. The thrust of the post explored how statues are neither mere art nor monuments imbued with an immutable meaning. Rather, they are objects of memory and part of a dynamic process by which history, culture, and commemoration are woven. Their meaning emerges from decisions about what ought to be commemorated and how, so what gets evoked will not only change over time, but will also vary from person to person. They are always contested.

The post worked toward a discussion of the Emancipation Memorial created by Thomas Ball in Washington DC in 1876 and with a copy (formerly) in Boston.

I hate this monument.

Emancipation is a wonderful thing to commemorate, of course, but this is also a monument that shows Abraham Lincoln with his one hand holding his proclamation, which rests on symbols of federal authority like the fasces, his other held beneficently over the back of a barely-clothed black man. Abe towers above, looking on placidly.

Emancipation Memorial, Lincoln Park Washington DC (Wikimedia Commons)

I never finished that post, obviously. I was writing a collection of loosely-connected thoughts and I ran out of steam.

Erin Thompson’s Smashing Statues: The Rise and Fall of America’s Public Monuments (Norton 2022) makes the argument I was trying to articulate in that post, only, you know, better.

Smashing Statues consists of two parts—four chapters on monuments going up, and four chapters on them coming down—all of which build from a simple premise:

American monuments were built to show us our place within national hierarchies of power. Regardless of our race, they tell us to sacrifice ourselves to the interests of those more powerful than us.

Thompson organizes each chapter around the story of one monument or type of monument as a way of exploring the disconnect between how they went up and the authority and reverence with which they are sometimes received.

For instance, Chapter 3 (“Shafts”) unpacks the history of Civil War monuments showing, among other things, how the most common monument was one that shows a common soldier at parade rest. That is, a monument that celebrates not the soldiers who died or the sacrifices of the living, but the obedience of the soldiers who fought for the cause.

My favorite chapter in the book, and one I’m considering assigning in class in the fall, is “A Shrine for the South,” which details the creation of Stone Mountain in Georgia in the 1920s. This site was intended to be the shrine described in the title, with a ghostly army of Confederate heroes riding along the mountain face. She starts the chapter with the story of how the sculptor Gutzon Borglum took an ax to the model head of Robert E. Lee, declaring that the project was a scam by the KKK to siphon off funds—before revealing that he was Klansman upset that he was being cut out of the profits.

To my mind, this chapter put on display all of the fissures involved in these monuments. Borglum joined the Klan, but he lived in Connecticut and was so enamored of Lincoln that he named his son after the dead president. The project relied on the Lost Cause mythology, but it also grew continuously because this was the surest way to secure additional funding. And, of course, Thompson concludes with a discussion of the project Borglum moved to from Stone Mountain: Mount Rushmore.

Smashing Statues is a quick read. Thompson is an art history professor with a special interest in the destruction of cultural heritage, and this book is based on her numerous articles on the topic of monuments since the summer of 2020. But it is no worse for the sense that it is a series of interconnected essays. The core message comes through like a clarion call, and not a moment too soon.

Traditional monuments put heroes on pedestals to tell us our troubles are over. They are our nation’s selfies—perfectly posed and cropped to show only our best angles. They cover up complications and give a too-rosy view of the past and the future. We need debates, not pieties. we need to question our past in order to remake our future. If monuments try to keep us where we are by holding up examples of impossibly perfect people, well, maybe we don’t need them at all.

Addendum: in the few minutes past when this post went up, a digital friend brought to my attention how these same tactics have been weaponized in Latin America. Smashing Statues is fundamentally oriented toward the the politics of commemoration in the United States where most these statues uphold the traditional political order. But in the sense that statues are not value-neutral, the instinct to tear down can be weaponized against monuments looking to establish a pluralistic vision of the future in much the same way that “heritage” can be used as a rallying cry to preserve those that enshrine the existing political order. Attacks that symbolically lynch the commemorated subject not only assert a political order, but also serve to intimidate the communities that would dare erect the monuments in the first place. This is because, as Thompson argues throughout Smashing Statues, monuments serve as an arena that reflects political debates in society writ large.

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I am hoping to write more in this space now that my semester is drawing to a close. This will likely include some book posts like this one where I give a few thoughts, if not a full review. Since the last one of these went up, I have also finished Michael Twitty’s The Cooking Gene, Tasha Suri’s The Jasmine Throne, and Kathryn Schulz’s Lost & Found, and I am now reading Yrsa Sigurdardóttir’s The Silence of the Sea.

White Rage

African Americans who went to the North simply stepped into a new articulation of the seething, corrosive hatred underlying so much of the nation’s social compact.

First published in 2016, Carol Anderson’s White Rage is a rejoinder to the national dialogue that frames police shootings of African American men as the consequence of “black rage” that makes officers fear for their lives. Anderson makes this point in the prologue “Kindling,” which elaborates on her Washington Post Op-Ed in the wake of Michael Brown’s murder in Ferguson, Missouri. The book expands the scope, offering a history of the relations between African Americans and White America. This history, she argues, is defined by white rage at even the slightest steps toward equality made by African Americans.

White Rage unfolds in five chapters, each of which examines a nominal step for African Americans toward realizing the American dream: Reconstruction, the Great Migration, Brown vs the Board of Education specifically, The Civil Rights Movement generally, and the election of the first African American president. But this is not a triumphant story. Anderson presents these moments in terms of how the establishment of White America set about rendering the gains hollow, perpetuating the racial schism in this country.

When I teach US history, I have my students watch a video where Anderson talks about the Tulsa Race War of 1921, when heavily armed white mobs destroyed the prosperous black community in Tulsa, Oklahoma. She brings the same vivid detail here, exposing particular stories like that of Dr. Ossian Sweet, whose bid to own a home in the white part of Detroit ended with his house besieged by a mob and he and his family put on trial for murder when they attempted to defend themself. In this case, Anderson recounts, the prosecutor built his case on the testimony of a police officer perjuring himself about the events, Sweet’s defense attorney––none other than Clarence Darrow––shredded the case, and, while Sweet eventually won in court, the series of events nevertheless ruined his life.

For all the trauma of the individual cases, though, Anderson demonstrates that White Rage is not the result of individual racists or a small number of southern states, but a systemic program across the country. She discusses, for instance, not only the well-known issues of voter suppression and drug policy, but also how during the height of the Space Race, there was a conscious decision that it was preferable to squander talents of wide swathes of the US population than to mobilize every available resource in the competition with the Soviet Union.

White Rage is beautifully written, with a white-hot intensity, but does not give in to the darkness it discusses. This is not a happy story, but Anderson does not deny the hope that undergirded each of the moments that proved hollow. We must “rethink America,” she says, but she means the structures: elections, education, policing and criminal justice. Rethinking America means extending the promise of America to all its citizens and rejecting the seduction of “buzzwords, dog whistles, and sophistry.”

Anderson supervised the PhDs of several of my friends, but this is the first of her books I’ve read. I was not disappointed. White Rage is a perfect complement to Nancy Isenberg’s White Trash, another hard look at the systemic inequity, hard problems, and unanswered questions bubbling just beneath the shallow surface of the American dream.

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Next up, I’m about halfway through Erik Larson’s In The Garden of Beasts, which follows the family of William Dodd, the historian named the first American ambassador to Nazi Germany. Thus far I’m not as impressed by this as I was by Devil in the White City, but Larson captures the menace of Berlin in 1933 as he explores how it came to be that everyone overlooked attacks not only on Jews and Communists, but on US citizens in 1933.