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Cast Iron Controversy

Cast Iron Controversy

The Conflicting Narratives Behind American Monuments  

By Ben Wexler    

Society is scrutinizing American monuments and determining if the figures who portrayed hard power should continue standing.  

In the summer of 2021, Black Lives Matter protests sparked by the murder of George Floyd brought attention to the statues and monuments that honor the confederacy and other controversial political leaders. These scenes resulted in an outcry of conflicting narratives and values from people across our nation. [1] 

Statues depicting institutionalized racism revealed a painful past of slavery and a more restrictive time in the United States. Some argue that it is difficult to move past racism if the statues stay in place. “We can’t get to learning from our history if we keep accepting that racism should be celebrated in American history,” described Khalil Gibran Muhammad, Ph.D., professor of history, race, and public policy at Harvard University. [2] 

Protestors are taking matters into their own hands either protecting the statues or spray-painting messages and attempting to pull down the century-old monuments. Some local governments have organized the removal of monuments.  

In Charlottesville, Virginia, lawmakers have decided to remove and melt down a statue of Robert E. Lee to create a new piece of art. “It really is about taking something that had been harmful and transforming it into something that is representative of the city’s values today,” said Andrea Douglas, executive director of the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center. Historian Jalane Schmidt, director of the University of Virginia’s memory project, expressed how the project serves to “confront white supremacy with creativity,” and “add beauty to heal the ugliness of the past.” [3] 

Others believe that the removal of monuments could result in a slippery slope of removal with the rise of any issue from any person. Annette Gordon-Reed, professor of American legal history at Harvard, details how we should avoid destroying statues of our founding fathers, for example, just because they owned slaves. While we should honor our founding fathers for shaping our nation, the “main duty is not to hide the bitter parts,” expressed Gordon-Reed. [4]  

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A graduate in a yellow robe and graduation cap walks into the distance on a trail, while their parents hold hands in the foreground, watching them walk away.

Some value the insights that are depicted through the monuments. Historian and author of The Slave’s Cause: A History of Abolition, Manisha Sinha, described how we should discuss “what we admire about them and what we don’t admire so much.” Sinha offered an alternative to the tearing down of monuments. Statues should be edited, removing “anything that smacks of the sort of imperialist legacy,” and instead highlight the important contributions that the historical figures made to society. [5]  

Highlighting people of color through statues is one way to represent the historical progress and diversity of our country. Symbolic annihilation, a term used to describe the lack of representation of a group of people, can result in the dehumanization of unrepresented people. Symbolic annihilation can be prevented with the implementation of statues that celebrate Black history and diversity. [6] 

Gleaning both undesirable truths and new truths that shape our future, statues must be scrutinized.  

References  

  1. Magazine, S. (2021, December 10). Charlottesville’s Robert E. Lee statue will be melted down, transformed into new art. Smithsonian. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/robert-e-lee-statue-in-charlottesville-will-be-melted-for-new-art-180979189/  
  1. Meeting with Britannica. (2022, January 27). Historic statue removal – pros & cons. ProCon. https://www.procon.org/headlines/historic-statue-removal-top-3-pros-cons/  
  1. Magazine, S. (2021, December 10). Charlottesville’s Robert E. Lee statue will be melted down, transformed into new art. Smithsonian. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/robert-e-lee-statue-in-charlottesville-will-be-melted-for-new-art-180979189/  
  1. Meeting with Britannica. (2022, January 27). Historic statue removal – pros & cons. ProCon. https://www.procon.org/headlines/historic-statue-removal-top-3-pros-cons/  
  1. NPR. (2020, June 23). Should statues of historic figures with complicated pasts be taken down? NPR. https://www.npr.org/2020/06/23/881992636/should-statues-of-historic-figures-with-complicated-pasts-be-taken-down   
  1. Meeting with Britannica. (2022, January 27). Historic statue removal – pros & cons. ProCon. https://www.procon.org/headlines/historic-statue-removal-top-3-pros-cons/
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