Why does it feel good to watch statues fall?
I’ve been thinking about this while watching protesters topple larger-than-life images of a broad range of figures, from Robert E. Lee to Christopher Columbus to Mayor Frank Rizzo of Philadelphia.
Things carved in stone or forged in bronze are meant to be permanent, even sacred. Erecting a monument is an expression of power, a celebration of triumph and an attempt to assert control over a story. By removing a statue, we fight that power. We assert that statues represent myth, not history. We demand new stories.
Consider the complicated case of the Emancipation Memorial in Washington’s Lincoln Park, which protesters announced last week they plan to take down. The statue once attempted to depict our highest ideal: the struggle for liberty. It shows Abraham Lincoln with a formerly enslaved man, his shackles broken, kneeling at the so-called Great Emancipator’s feet.
At the time of its dedication in 1876, when African American men and women were seldom honored in the United States and in fact endured brutal and relentless oppression, this statue served as a source of pride. African American people paid for its construction, beginning with a $ 5 donation from “Charlotte Scott, a colored washer woman, of Marietta, Ohio, the morning after Lincoln’s assassination,” according to The Baltimore Sun on April 15, 1876.
President Ulysses S. Grant, members of his Cabinet, justices of the Supreme Court and members of Congress all attended the dedication. Frederick Douglass, a former slave, gave the big speech of the day. “No African American speaker had ever faced this kind of captive audience, composed of all the leadership of the federal government in one place,” David Blight wrote in his biography of Douglass, “and no such speaker would ever again until Barack Obama was inaugurated president in 2009.”
Douglass struck celebratory chords, but he also began, immediately, to change the story of the statue. “He was preeminently the white man’s president,” Douglass said of Lincoln, “entirely devoted to the welfare of the white man.” Douglass criticized Lincoln for sacrificing the rights of “the colored people to promote the welfare of the white people of the country.”
The statue’s meaning continued to shift over time. Twenty years after the dedication, William Greenleaf Eliot published a book about the man who had served as a model for the kneeling, shirtless figure in the Emancipation Memorial. The model was Archer Alexander, an escaped slave who bravely aided Union troops during the Civil War and whose biography reminds us that slaves were not the passive recipients of emancipation; they fought to be free.
Even then, the memorial’s meaning continued to evolve. Recent work by genealogists has revealed that Alexander was the great-great-great-grandfather of boxer Muhammad Ali, the bold and brilliant boxer who became a Muslim, inspired millions with his resistance to the American war in Vietnam, and, somehow, went from being one of the most hated men in America to one of the most celebrated in the world.
Of course, none of that changes the image on the pedestal. The statue remains a fixed object, and a degrading one at that — “a black dude on his knees,” as Tory Bullock described it in a Facebook video in which he urged the city of Boston to remove its replica of the statue.
By toppling statues, even well-intentioned ones, we assert that there’s more power in the present than the past, that the people who erect statues may be seeking permanence, but they don’t have the final word. History, as James Baldwin wrote, “is literally present in all that we do.”
Some statues must fall. The stories they tell no longer deserve to be told. The figures they honored no longer deserve honor. We must change that history.
But in the case of the Emancipation Memorial, there is an alternative to toppling. We could leave it standing and surround it with new statues — one showing Douglass delivering his address, another with Alexander standing tall, and yet another depicting Ali, one of our nation’s greatest anti-racist warriors, pumping his fist in victory.
Each of those statues, in its own way, would tell a story of emancipation.