Toppling the Past

A couple of days ago, someone said to me, “Isn’t it awful? Those people tearing down statues?” I responded, “I don’t give a rat’s ass about the statues. I’m more concerned about the man who died with a cop’s knee on his neck.” 

You’d think as someone who loves history and bemoans the loss of so many elegant Manhattan homes and hotels of the early 20th Century, I would be more sympathetic to the cause of the monuments. Bret Stephens of the New York Times makes the case that while some statues, specifically Confederate generals, should be removed, others that deserve to stand are also being toppled. He points out that “there’s a vast difference between thinking critically about the past, for the sake of learning from it, and behaving destructively toward the past, with the aim of erasing it.”

While there’s obvious logic to his argument, it doesn’t take into account that we are in the midst of a powerful and important moment. A time of reckoning, so to speak.

If the dominant white society had been more respectful and mindful of Black culture, not to mention Black lives, perhaps these precious monuments wouldn’t be endangered. If we had not neglected, segregated, and distorted Black history, perhaps our own collective history would be more valued. But we’re the ones who divided history into “their” history and “our” history. We segregated Black history to one month a year. We appropriated what we wanted from Black culture without valuing the people who created it. And we turned a blind eye over and over to the injustices that have raged in this country since its inception. What is the loss of these statues next to those egregious failures?

Is it any surprise that the monuments, which the guardians of white culture deem valuable (whether or not they represent racists), are the targets of centuries of ire? What else could we possibly expect? We’ve been forgiven for so much for so long, this destruction may come as a shock to many white people. But the world changes.

Just as so many architectural treasures in lower Manhattan were destroyed to make way for the uninspired, Trumpesque monuments to mammon we have today, so will we lose some statues that represent values we still hold dear along with the misguided monuments to oppressors like Christopher Columbus, whose statue recently wound up in the drink — but for a much more worthwhile cause.

I, for one, will not weep for the statues. May their loss herald a new era when all voices are heard, all history is our history, and when all lives actually do matter.

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