So many monuments to racism, slavery, and colonialism have been toppled, removed, or slated for removal in the wake of the George Floyd protests that Wikipedia’s army of volunteer editors is keeping a running tally: Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, and a slew of other Confederate generals and notable white supremacists and segregationists; Frank Rizzo, the notoriously racist mayor (“Vote white”) of Philadelphia; even symbolic figures like the Pioneer and Pioneer Mother, formerly of the University of Oregon in Eugene. As I write, word comes that the embarrassing statue of Theodore Roosevelt mounted on a horse and trailed by a Native American man and a black man on foot will be removed from the main entrance of New York’s Museum of Natural History.
Yesterday’s heroes are history’s villains. That nice Pope Francis thought so well of Father Junípero Serra that he canonized him in 2015, despite Native Americans’ objections to Serra’s harsh and coercive missionary work. He’s now the patron saint of California. But protesters in San Francisco and Los Angeles recently tore down his statue. As for Christopher Columbus—19 statues and counting—New York Governor Andrew Cuomo defended his presence in Manhattan’s Columbus Circle. (It “has come to represent and signify appreciation for the Italian American contribution to New York,” he said at a press conference.) But I wouldn’t bet on Chris keeping his pedestal much longer. Maybe Italian Americans could choose another compatriot, someone who brought joy to the world and didn’t massacre and enslave vast numbers of people. Like Verdi or Puccini.
In fact, there already is a Verdi Square just a few blocks from Columbus Circle. (There’s a Dante Park nearby as well, which is tiny and not well publicized. I’ve lived in New York all my life and found out about it only while researching this column.) Italy’s contribution to the worlds of literature, art, music, science, and thought is so huge, every park in Manhattan could be renamed after world-famous, beloved Italians with no trouble at all. Gramsci Triangle. Maria Montessori Plaza. Primo Levi Square.
History is large and contains multitudes. There is no reason to cling to torturers, warlords, conquerors, and exploiters—and especially no reason to celebrate Confederate traitors who plunged the nation into civil war, in the aftermath of which we are in many ways still living. Indeed, the posthumous reputation of the Confederacy proves the adage is wrong: It is not always the winners who write history. The “Lost Cause”—a fantasy of the antebellum South as all crinolines, magnolias, courtly soldiers, and happy slaves and of the war itself as a matter of “states’ rights,” never specifying which rights were at issue—has set the popular narrative ever since Reconstruction. It’s great that NASCAR is banning the Stars and Bars, but why did it take so long? And why did it take the horrible killing of George Floyd and the marching of hundreds of thousands of protesters daily for weeks to achieve what is, after all, a symbolic victory?
Symbols matter. Aunt Jemima, Uncle Ben, Mrs. Butterworth, and the black chef on the Cream of Wheat box are the remnants of a once mighty flood of ads, logos, and household items depicting black people as happy cooks, servants, mammies, and comical children. It is not possible to escape this history by slenderizing Aunt Jemima and giving her a modern hairstyle or by making Mrs. Butterworth’s bottle more abstract. I’m glad the original spokesperson for Aunt Jemima, Nancy Green, who was born into slavery, spoke out against poverty and, according to legend, became a millionaire, but that’s not a reason to keep the franchise going. It’s 2020! Retiring these products is not “political correctness”; it is the removal of a profound racial insult from our grocery stores and kitchen tables. And if Eskimo Pies have to follow the Land O’Lakes Native American woman into oblivion, so be it.
What will it take to get rid of the widespread celebration of our worst moments and our worst people? It’s easy enough to take down a statue or to change the name of a road. (Looking at you, Virginia, home of Stonewall Jackson Highway and Lee Highway.) But some names are so embedded in our history, our culture, and our maps that it’s hard to imagine eradicating them, even if we wanted to. There are dozens of places named after Columbus—Columbus, Ohio (and Indiana and Georgia and… ). Columbia University, Columbia County, the Columbia River. (To say nothing of Colombia, but fortunately that’s not our problem.) There’s not much anyone can do about Serra’s sainthood; canonization is forever. (Still, Stanford University gets points for changing the name of Serra Mall, its main drag and postal address, to Jane Stanford Way, after the insufficiently acknowledged cofounder, with her husband, of the university.)
We do not lack for heroes, many of whom, being women and/or nonwhite, have never gotten their due. (More will soon be added, but as of right now, in all of New York City there are only five public statues of women.) Let’s get rid of the bad men on horses and honor instead those who have been neglected, famous or not. We could start with Fort Bragg, Fort Benning, Fort Hood, and the other military bases named, bizarrely, after Confederate fighters and rechristen them after people who fought to save the republic and end slavery. We could celebrate artists and writers and poets; surely Walt Whitman deserves something more inspiring than a rest stop on the New Jersey Turnpike. We could tell a new American story by lifting up the people who worked to make us better, not worse—the radicals and freethinkers, progressive politicians, labor leaders, feminists, and fighters for racial equality and the liberty and justice for all to which our schoolchildren pledge. Germany and Austria have gotten rid of all (well, almost all) of their place names honoring Nazis and anti-Semites, and some municipalities are currently on a binge of naming things after women, whose role in those countries’ histories has been startlingly overlooked.
But while we are toppling some statues and erecting others, let’s not forget to do the deeper work of combating injustice. George Floyd didn’t die because Minneapolis lacked the right monuments.