Do statues inform history? Amidst the controversy over the tearing down of statues, appears the opposition argument to such action that to do so is to rob a country of its history. In particular, President Trump has claimed that such action compromises the recognition of the historical roots that helped define the United States.
Thus, to remove a statue of General Robert E. Lee, constructed in 1923, as an example, denies Americans their history, and more emphatically their heroes of history. I find the argument both disingenuous and insensitive.
Statues rarely convey history. Perhaps the plaque on a statue credits the sculptor, the year it was erected, but more importantly the name of the figure and usually an endearing quote about said figure. For example, on one marker honoring General Lee, the Daughters of the Confederacy inscribe “in loving memory” of Robert E. Lee. Nothing is conveyed about role in history. No mention of his slave ownership, his vows to protect slavery, or in essence by virtue of his position his treason against the union of States. By their nature, historical statues are erected for the purpose of honoring the historical figure whose likeness is captured in the work.
One does not learn history from the statue, with the possible exception that such an individual is worthy of celebration for their historical contribution. What should an African-American man, woman, or child think when in their daily routines they pass a symbolic tribute to their oppression, degradation, and enslavement. And make no mistake, as evidenced by the reactions of those who wish to preserve such monuments, and oftentimes celebrate heritage with the flags of the Confederacy, these symbols are not representations of a history gone wrong, of an embarrassment over slavery, but rather a sign of longed for past, a nostalgia for how things used to be. Oppressed be damned!
For us as Jews, reflection on this matter is essential, and such refection should put us squarely behind those who feel the oppressive signal of such symbols. We build, encourage building, we contribute to the monuments and statues that often capture failings of humankind to our peoplehood. We dedicate these works not to the oppressors, but to the victims of oppression. Be it Yad Vashem, or the other numerous Holocaust memorials that dot the planet, we make it clear that it is the Victims of the historical atrocities who should be the focus of the history. Moreover, these memorials are often filled with oral testimony and photos to actually teach what befell us. We demand where we are able to demand, that our history be taught to caution the world against future atrocities. How would we react, assuming we had the power, and made up 20% of a country whose industry was built on the backs of families, if instead of lamenting our struggles and our abuse, that country memorialized, a Hitler or a Stalin, or other figures who regarded us as less than human?
Imagine an African-American parent walking with their child in a Southern town, where there is no memorial that captures their oppression, where curriculum often short changed their story, but a statue of Robert E Lee stands in the city center, sometimes complimented by flag of the Confederacy draping its body. Which side of history should we be on? I think the answer should be obvious.