Conflicted about controversial statues? Check out this Humanities Washington panel discussion
Humanities Washington convened an interesting and provocative online discussion about controversial public monuments and ways we might think about whether they remain as is, whether they should be reinterpreted given today’s understanding or whether there are cases in which they should be moved to private settings.
The discussion featured three Northwest professors, Reiko Hillyer from Lewis and Clark College, Josh Reid from the University of Washington and also a member of the Swinomish Tribe) and Jasmine Mahmoud, from Seattle University.
Promotion materials of the event mentioned the former Robert E. Lee Elementary in East Wenatchee along with other Confederate-focused monuments. Changing the name by dropping Robert E. from the school name sparked a lot of controversy and debate in our valley.
The discussion was also timely given the protests around the country regarding the killing by a police officer of George Floyd and the subsequent racial injustice protests which prompted the removal of some Confederate monuments and defacing of others. Those opposed to statue removal see these acts as bowing to politically correctness and attempting to erase history. People favoring removal focus on the impropriety of White Supremacy symbolism in the monuments.
I found it helpful to consider the context in which the monuments were erected.
Hillyer pointed out that the monuments started appearing in the 1890s to push back against Reconstruction and create the myth that slavery was a benevolent institution and that the Confederacy “rightly and nobly fought only to defend state’s rights against Northern invasion.”
It created the “conceptual glue,” she said, for segregation, disenfranchisement and terrorism.” The Confederate monuments, she concluded, tell “us a lot more about the period in which the memorialization occurred than about the events being memorialized.”
Josh Reid made a similar comparison regarding statues depicting the mythic White pioneer interpretation of history. He referenced the statue of Chief Seattle at Seattle Center, which includes a plaque calling him a “firm friend” of White settlers, which to him suggests that indigenous people “gave their lands to the United States and in return were pleased to receive the blessings of civilization.” These attitudes “obscure one of the original sins of this nation – the theft of native homelands and waters,” he continued.
The statue and plaque present a view of history that reflects favorably on settlers and unfavorably on indigenous peoples, feeding into the narrative that “real” Indians like Chief Seattle are all dead — a vanished race. If the Indians are no more, in the minds of the culture, “then there’s no need to honor treaty rights or native sovereignty or self-determination,” he added.
An important question is whether these statues are, in fact, history or whether they are telling stories about our history from a single perspective when in the context of our growing understanding there deserves to be a fuller articulation of what happened.
These historians were in agreement that monuments express attitudes of a particular time and that ongoing vigorous public debate about these monuments is warranted. It was pointed out that following the Revolutionary War, statues celebrating the English Monarchy were removed. If it was OK to remove monuments to English kings, why should we be stuck with monuments in this country that celebrate the enslavement of African Americans? Why is it there are now monuments in the South memorializing the emancipation of four million people? Why aren’t we discussing the messages in the pioneer memorials in our region?
I came away from the lively discussion with a strong sense that history needs to reflect more than just single heroic narratives that in retrospect tell only part of the story.
I am grateful that the Eastmont School Board dropped Robert E. from the Lee school name. The cause he fought to maintain was an economic system based on the enslavement of Blacks.
The Humanities Washington discussion can be viewed by accessing its Facebook page and selecting “Set in Stone.”
It’s well worth listening to and reflecting on the depth and breadth of this issue through the Humanities Washington discussion.