Death comes to all, but great achievements build a monument which shall endure until the sun grows cold
~Ralph Waldo Emmerson
The city of Philadelphia displays one of its most popular statues, (not Ben Franklin, the Liberty Bell, Joan of Arc) just outside the building, atop what are popularly known as the “Rocky Steps” – the stairs that Rocky Balboa climbed in the first movie of the storied franchise. A statue of the celluloid superstar is a favorite of tourists and Philadelphians alike and many line up to take their selfies with the bronzed icon. This statue of a fictional character, erected in a venerated place of culture, Philadelphia’s Museum of Art, continually brings much joy and pride to those who make their pilgrimage to that place. I bring attention to this as an important debate about statues and history rages across the country. In my opinion, the debate has gotten off track. Many swear by the historical importance of our national statues and I agree, there are many that serve as beacons to shed light on the greatest of our past who lived and died to move this wonderful country forward. Celebration of those that instill a sense of national pride and serve as reminders of the courage, determination and sacrifices made by those honored through whatever involvement they offered to that progress is a wonderful and necessary act.
‘Who lives, who dies, who tells your story…’
~ from Broadway’s, Hamilton
I strongly believe in the power and value of history; it’s as important as science, and math in any education agenda. The detailed study of history provides valuable lessons, nuggets of knowledge, insight and the clues to achieve possible success as well as the potential for destruction: too important to be lost. Traditionally, our focus is usually firmly fixed on growth and innovation so, many think our experience with history should be limited to a hobby. Any time spent on studying history should be relegated to reading biographies, and trips to historical sites during our summer vacations. Thankfully our culture allows for so many more ways to shed light on the experiences of our past. Most recently, one need only to think of the Broadway show Hamilton which until now, could only be experienced by those fortunate enough to attend shows in NY or the limited travelling shows throughout the US, if you could even get a ticket. The popularity of this show is phenomenal; viewers claim the experience as life changing…a tale of the birth of our nation, told countless times through books, movies and some of our very first history classes has become life changing and has arguably taught us more about the revolution and the beginnings of our government because of a different representation that has created a change in perspective. Hamilton may have done more than the numerous statues of Washington, Hamilton and others involved in the emancipation from British royal rule. I agree (I won’t admit how many times my wife and I have watched) this phenomenal display of a carefully meshed popular culture and history over 240 years old has created more “new” knowledge than many can fathom. How many times can you say, ‘I didn’t know that’, throughout the show. The phenomenon is proof that statues are not required to tell the story of our nation and the important challenges faced. In today’s multi media world, the point is almost moot.
He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone.
~Jesus Christ, John 8:8
Now, the founders and other heroes of our past were far from perfect. Many owned slaves, had been accused or admitted moral improprieties, had to justify their means to get to the desired end result. This should never be hidden from the public record nor forgotten from our history books, museums or even the statues that venerate them or the stories that they tell. It is important to understand, to know, it was part of the reality of those times. From a young age, George Washington owned slaves as did Jefferson and most of the founding fathers – no, it wasn’t right. But their sights and goals were set on a different time and place. They marched towards a place where slavery was no longer wanted, required or even acceptable. They dreamed of a place where all men were to be considered equal; their intentions fixed towards societal evolution even if it took revolution. They knew what they knew and could not erase how they were raised, but most importantly, they had decided that was not good enough, they had to do better and, they wanted to break the cycle. Their ideals had changed for the good, even though the reality of their surroundings were slow to catch up. Change is not always universally accepted, and, in the process, they chose to pursue progress one battle at a time with the hopes of ultimately achieving success. We cannot fault them for that. Any of us today, who have ever tried to break a cycle for the positive, whether it be for the good of ourselves, our family, our community or even our businesses, we know it is a series of steps towards progress, that requires sometimes overcoming failure, obstructions, intolerance, lack of outside acceptance and improving the process and constantly revising goals that evolve to make us successful. Very rare is significant change a result of overnight success. Over 150 years after the Civil War, we should be encouraged when we admit that atonement and reparations is the only fair thing to consider and we work towards a solution, rather than forget and ignore. Should it have happened earlier, absolutely, but again, change is hard and often slow…the air has changed.
On the other side of the argument, a different story. We should celebrate and honor those for whom they represented on the side of wrong. Being a good general in the case of Robert E. Lee does not erase the fact that he either believed in the practice of slavery, was too afraid to fight against it or perhaps even sold out his skills to the highest bidder as a mercenary, because I think we can agree, the cause was wrong. Robert E Lee, Jefferson Davis, Hitler, Sadam Hussein, Mussolini, Stalin, and too many others to mention, should never be forgotten. They should be studied. Their names should be emblazoned on book covers, highlighted in documentaries and the details of all of their deeds shared in every language so that we will never forget the potential of man’s evil. The confederate flag should also be removed but never forgotten. This was the flag raised above the army that was committing treason and fighting against the will of the United States of America by taking up arms against it. This flag represents so much pain and division to not only people of color but to the majority of this country. Treason should never be celebrated with statues commemorating those that committed it. I have never walked into any Catholic church and seen a ‘celebrated’ statue of Judas. There are no statues of Hitler or Josef Mengele in Germany. The lack of statues representing the evil of man should not be fought against with the argument that we will forget our past. That’s what history is for and in a media rich world, a statue is not your answer to ‘never forget’. The reality is, my honest opinion, if you need a statue, it’s because those represent a sense of pride, of longing for a past you wish hadn’t changed. A reverence of those you agreed with and wish didn’t lose the battles for their cause. I am happy to debate this point offline if you desire, on the chance that I may have missed something – although I don’t think I did.
What you leave behind is not what is engraved in monuments, but what is woven into the lives of others.
Pericles’ words resonate loudly, but I also believe statues and monuments should shine brightly in open spaces for all to see, to cherish and be a reminder to honor those imperfect men and women who: worked to emancipate the US colonies from the British and seek a new path; pushed the need for all to be considered equal; for those who risked their livelihoods and their lives to break the chains of slaves and the practice of slavery; for those who fought for education to be a right for all; for those who marched and risked their lives against tyranny and poverty in this country; for those who built institutions to promote health and quality of life; for those who suffered because their skin was a different color or whose religions didn’t fit the majority; those who make our neighborhoods safe places where family and community thrives; those who shed light on the strife of our aboriginals and the suffering they endured; those who create laws that bring us closer to a utopia we can only imagine at this time; those who push the limits of science to try and make everything better; those who, when we look up, stir in us a sense of pride, a sense of goodness that inspire us to do better, be better, live better. Even in the case of a fictional character, who wasn’t very educated, who failed often, but whose drive to be better, to help himself up, help his family and to lift his city up, fueled a passion to work until he was successful, is celebrated in the bronze. Rocky didn’t save a country, but sparks passion in people to be better, and that is worth a statue.
My goal is never to judge, but I know what I am hearing with regards to the argument to keep questionable statues; preserving history is not a valid argument. Take the money you would use to build the statue and fund a basic Netflix documentary. The exposure will be better, and the truth will never be lost – assuming you tell the truth. Do I wish we could reevaluate these monuments without violence? Yes. But honestly, I have no say here – this is another discussion altogether. These arguments and debates have been waged for too many years. I would never claim to share the pain and feelings of a Black or any community that feels it is not being heard and feels it has to resort to extremes to confront their life and death realities. A community that endures violence against their children by those trusted with authority. I can have no valid opinion of the process, but I can speak out against the invalid arguments against this kind of progress. Drop your need for your statues, not the truth, and yours, our history will not be lost for this reason. Otherwise, admit what you really stand for and wish to celebrate; at least you will not be lying.
I realize this is a difficult debate and if you feel I have missed the point, please write, reach out. I am always willing to discuss…God bless.