In the U.S., while 100 Confederate monuments were removed after the racist mass murder of worshippers in Charleston’s Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, there are still 700 standing. Historian Karen Cox told The Washington Post that 30 have been built in the past two decades.
But while some Southern states are moving to protect their monuments to slavery and slaveholders, and a Virginia judge blocked Gov. Ralph Northam’s plan to remove a massive statue of Robert E. Lee, protesters aren’t waiting. A group of protesters took down four such monuments in Portsmouth, Virginia. And having protesters take action can be particularly meaningful.
“I’m so happy that I’m alive to see it come down and to see Black people take it down—not the city, not your mayor, nobody important,” one Black woman told Norfolk TV station WVEC. “Black people are taking down this hate.”
It’s not just Confederate statues in the U.S., either. We also have our share of statues to, for instance, Spanish conquistadors who brutalized Native populations, and most of all to Christopher Columbus, the original pioneer of brutalizing Native populations. Statues of Columbus have been handled by protesters in a number of cities, but many remain standing. They were put up to give Italian Americans a figure to rally around, and politicians like New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo continue to defend them on that basis. (As if there are no other significant Italian American figures who could be honored.)
That’s a key thing to understand about all these statues: They were put up for specific political reasons, to raise up not so much individuals as ideas of national or ethnic identity and to valorize specific histories above others. We can remember history without raising it up—literally, in the case of statues on pedestals—and saying it must be centered in our cities and our society. Germany does not erect statues to Nazis, but Germans do not forget. The United States and other countries should be able and willing to learn that lesson.