Rethinking Who and What Get Memorialized
The notion that history can be rewritten is a powerful one. It starts by taking the pen from the authors we’ve always had — and giving it to someone else.
This is a magazine devoted to documenting visual culture, whether those visuals come from the worlds of fashion, theater, film, architecture or art. Some of the most striking visuals from the past half-year in America — and there have been many — have concerned the removal or defacement of monuments dedicated to figures from the Confederacy, whose placement in public spaces mostly in the South are, for many of us, an insult, if not an assault. I am not Black, but I keenly remember the discomfort and inexplicable shame I often felt while attending my freshman-year public high school, Robert E. Lee, in Tyler, Texas. Lee was a Confederate general, a slave owner and a commander in the Confederate Army during the American Civil War. (The middle school I attended in Tyler, Hubbard, was also named for a former Confederate officer, who later became the state’s governor.) A large portrait of Lee hung in the school gym, and whenever I saw it, I felt as if my right to this country, to Americanness, was being challenged. Why, more than a century later, was someone who had fought for something this country now purported to be against still being honored?
I was too cowardly to ever consider articulating my anger, but this past June, a track star at the school, a young Black woman named Trude Lamb, announced that she refused to participate in athletic events as long as she had to wear a jersey printed with Lee’s name; last month, the town’s school board voted to change the name of both that high school as well as another secondary school, John Tyler, named for the United States’ 10th president — also a slave owner and a member of the Confederate Congress. (The name of the town itself, which also memorializes Tyler, thus far remains unchanged.)
Lamb is just one reminder of how everyday courage can change the things we have grown to, if not accept, then tolerate. She is also a reminder of what we should not be asking our citizens to tolerate in the first place: that cognitive dissonance we live with daily, in which some of us are given the privilege of knowing that this country will treat us fairly and honor our past, and others are not. For our story “America’s Monuments, Reimagined for a More Just Future,” we asked five contemporary artists to create a monument for America today: for an America as it was, as it should be and as it could be. One of the artists chose to imagine a statue, to celebrate a person whose significance and accomplishments were ignored and neglected. Others conceived of America itself as a monument, assigning the very land for different uses. Such a notion suggests that any nation is a palimpsest, one whose history can be rewritten, again and again. It’s a powerful idea. But it starts by first taking the pen from the authors we’ve always had — and giving it to someone else.