...monuments act as the blank canvasses upon which white supremacy is too often justified, reinscribed, and maintained in the United States.
“Who is that guy, mommy?”
My four-year-old was pointing at the Abraham Lincoln monument in Washington D.C. in 2013. Just the day before, a jury of six women, only one who identified as a “woman of color,” had found George Zimmerman “not guilty” in the murder of Trayvon Martin.
“That’s Abraham Lincoln. He was president.”
At that moment, there was no real point in rehashing the entire “Lincoln freed the slaves” narrative because I knew full well that Honest Abe wouldn’t have ended slavery in the United States if he could have preserved the Union without touching the peculiar institution. Lincoln said so himself when he wrote a letter telling Horace Greeley, then Editor of the New York Tribune,
If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that. What I do about slavery, and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union.
But, as the popular story goes, Lincoln not only freed the slaves. He supposedly abhorred the institution itself—another fable made up by the procession of time.
This is how time works in an anti-Black world.
Time allows for distance from the uncomfortable truths that this country was founded on racial and ethnic genocide, colonization and the stealing of indigenous lands. It subverts our necessary reckoning with the central role of slavery in the development of the global economy and its enduring and transformative effects on the United States today. This is what happens when we create more monuments to commemorate the mythological feats of white people than history books reflecting the facts of our past.
That’s the thing about monuments to the Confederacy: monuments transcend time. Monuments give myths meaning. Even when there is no backstory to explain why they exist, there is an underlying assumption that monuments and memorials must signify something morally pure. And, no matter the true histories which belie their existence, monuments act as the blank canvasses upon which white supremacy is too often justified, reinscribed, and maintained in the United States.
There are still more than 700 monuments to the Confederacy in this country. They are mostly condensed in southern states like Texas, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Louisiana, and Arkansas. Their existence reminds us that 57% of people see the Confederacy as a symbol of southern pride and heritage rather than one of racial violence (according to a recent CNN poll).
But, the lack of monuments and memorials to Black Americans in the freedom struggle contradicts the “heritage” narrative. Many Americans must travel abroad to see memorials to the global struggle for Black liberation since Black Americans still remain largely unrecognized in the fabric of the “American Dream.” This is not happenstance.
Last month, as the riots and counterprotests in Charlottesville, Virginia erupted over the removal of a statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee, President Donald Trump suggested that these actions ran the risk of “changing history.” Upon hearing these words, I was reminded of a TED Talk by Dr. Brittney Cooper called “The Racial Politics of Time.” In it, she explains that, “ if time had a race, it would be white. White people own time.”
White people own time.
Whether he knew it or not, Trump was agreeing with Cooper. Essentially, he was suggesting, like many white people in the United States, that the enshrining of whiteness and its supremacy in our acts of memory, in our agreed upon modes of recognition, and in our public forms of leisure and collective memory, is a matter of time ownership.
Trump was echoing the notion—set forth by the white supremacists chanting “we will not be replaced“—that the United States has always been a project of preserving white dreams and futures. His commentary suggested that to change all of that now—by threatening the symbols of their heritage of violence, rape, unjust seizure and removal of non-white people, and of the manipulation of legal structures to justify that process—is inherently ahistorical.
And, he was right.
On this day, sixteen years ago, just one day after my seventeenth birthday, I watched planes fly into the Twin Towers on New York’s Wall Street. I saw people falling from the iconic buildings as non-domestic terrorists enacted gruesome violence on the United States. The World Trade Center, sometimes called “Ground Zero” following the attack and the deaths of nearly 3,000 people, became a site of collective memory, frozen in time and memorialized as the place where America was threatened but stood strong.
What I would later come to learn was that the United States had long played an active role in the terrorizing and colonization of various countries and provinces in the Middle East. I learned that the United States had situated itself as a democratic firepower in oil-producing countries across the globe, protecting the interests of allies with whom trade and co-production was politically and economically viable, and attacking those who were expendable under the capitalistic regime. I also learned that warnings about the attack were largely ignored by the Bush Administration, a fact many still don’t want to talk about.
And, even at seventeen, as the monuments and memorials to 9-11 were erected, I knew that the history of the United States’ pivotal role in creating the terrorists—who understood that our commitment to the symbols of our heritage outstripped our commitment to what is just—would be soon erased. Better yet, it would be changed.
So, years later, while standing in front of The Great Emancipator’s massive commemoration, I remembered our history with intention. I gave space to time.
“He must have been a really important guy to have a statue like that,” my four-year looked up at me and replied.
“You could say that. But, statues don’t make someone important baby. It’s not that simple.”
Photo via Wiki Commons