History, Art, and Doing Better

I was discussing the removal of statues with a loved one and felt I should broaden my argument to my blog post. Clearly, as a teacher of race relations, I have a lot of opinions on the discussion. I will try to condense it here. The discussion was in response to this article.

What we’re ultimately addressing is removing something (whether art or a statue), that was erected during a different era. We can look at slavery now and know it’s wrong. In a different context, slavery was accepted. Was it still morally wrong at that point? Well, that depends on a lot of factors, such as how would stand politically, economically, religiously, etc. We can’t change that slavery happened. We can’t change that for 200+ years our government viewed black people as less than whites (at every level). We can’t criticize the people who stood by and (albeit passively) endorsed slavery as a system, because that was the culture of that era. When I teach about white privilege (which I believe exists) I’m constantly reiterating to students that this isn’t about white guilt – it’s about the white acknowledgment that even in today’s society whites have more opportunities afforded to them. Understanding the context is really critical. So, we’ll set “art” aside and revisit that. The argument is about removing a piece of history from a public space.

The general criticism of removing statues is that it’s removing history, and I disagree with that. History needs to preserve its place, and mankind (literate mankind, at the very least) need to have an ongoing appreciation for the ways history has shaped where we are today. That said, removing a Confederate statue, or in this case, Foster’s statue in no way changes the history that shaped that society, and the history that resultantly shapes us now. The knowledge will remain. People will continue to teach about it, to talk about it. We also can’t view history as “fixed” because that would be one of the most dangerous things we could do – as we learn more about history, we understand how the tales of the victor often get misrepresented over time, and people’s recollection of events gets fuzzy, or changes from one storyteller to the next. That’s inevitable. There’s no finite view of history. History is subjective, just as art is subjective. Are there facts involved? You bet, but history generally represents one view.

So, history is constantly being shaped and reshaped. Our sense of morality is constantly being shaped by the events of the time, our increased knowledge, and our mindfulness of others. If we are to move forward in a healthy way in society, we take the knowledge that we’ve gleaned (e.g., such as enslaving people is wrong) and try to make a better world for our children. Part of that involves recognizing the sins of the past and more so using that knowledge and growth that we have to reshape society so that it’s better. Better for whom? Well, better for everyone (including black people). As a white woman, I can academically examine the ways that slavery created systemic advantages for one group and inherent structural disadvantages for black people. I can read the books, and I can get it. I can’t, in my day to day life, say I can fully empathize with their experiences of subjugation. I haven’t experienced the consequences of that history as influencing my present-day life chances. I don’t have the emotional or visceral response to seeing a slave at the foot of a white man in a statue represented every day when I pass by it (well, I have that icky sense of injustice, but that’s because I study this stuff so much). More generally, with the removal of the Confederate statues, we don’t have any negative emotional response to seeing a white military leader’s statue (one who pushed for the continuation of the ideology of slavery as both just and valid) in a place of honor. Since we don’t know that experience, and can’t fully empathize with the harms of subjugation, how should we respond? Should we shrug? Should we say, “Ahh, they’re just making a mountain out of a molehill”? Does that incorporate any sense of the increasing knowledge and compassion and respect for mankind that we’ve made (albeit nominal) strides in over the last 75 years since the Civil Rights movement? Not really.

So, let’s turn to art. ANYONE who’s studied art knows the subjective valuation of art. We don’t know Moretti’s intent when he created this statue. It could have simply been reflecting the appreciation he had for Foster. It could have been reflecting the ideals of the time (which, arguably, 1900 America was still very segregated and Antebellum in ideals). Sure, Pennsylvania was more progressive than many states at the time, but it’s probably (as most are arguing) a reflection of a white artist’ appreciation for another white artist – a musician – and depicting the more ‘natural’ position of a black slave in a subjugated pose to a white. Was that bad for 1900? I’d argue no. I’d argue it was reflecting the time. Is it bad for 2018? The Arts Commission seems to think so. They’re probably making the decision to move it on the basis of public response, public criticism of keeping a statue up depicting a black slave at a white man’s feet in an era where we are still desperately fighting to have equality (and do not – which is key).

Are they folding to the pressure of black people? In my opinion – who cares? If any group is offended by the way a public statue is influencing them emotionally, they’re entitled to speak out about it, and the community *should* discuss the ramifications. Now, people are going to argue, “But if we let any group influence statues that they’re offended by, we wouldn’t have any statues!” I’d call BS on that. Saying I’m offended by a statue of a bull, for example, on Wall Street is markedly different than a black person saying they’re offended by the statue of a black slave at a white man’s feet in an otherwise rather progressive community. How is it different? Well, is there anything worse than enslavement? Reflect on that. If ANY group is entitled to complain about being disgruntled about something, wouldn’t it be the group that is still experiencing consequences of the system of slavery 200+ years later? It’s the same argument of saying sports teams should keep Native American names – that Native Americans need to get over it, it’s just a name, it has no meaning. False. It has no meaning to whites. It holds meaning to other people. If we’re humanitarians, we consider the impact our decisions and actions have on our fellow man.

Given that art is subjective and hits us all differently, and this is in a public, community space, I think it’s good the commission handled the situation with public input, with a vote, and then made a decision to respond. The statue isn’t going to wind up in somebody’s basement, shrouded in darkness. It will be put somewhere in a historical context, and people will still be able to view it (just like the Confederate statues) and people can talk about why it was removed. THAT conversation alone is an important one to have, especially with our children. We need to explain that we’re not removing history, we’re not reshaping it and we’re not eliminating art because “some people are offended.”

We are responding, with knowledge and compassion, to right a wrong. We are making an effort towards inclusion so that all people in a society or a community can feel comfortable walking down the street without having subjugation thrust into their faces.  America, right now, as at a critical juncture. Racism is spiking. Hate group membership has increased 65% since 2005 (mostly due to the internet), and 20% in the last 3 years.  The Klan is having open rallies. Nazis are walking in our streets. Do we want to roll back progress simply for the argument that a statue is so important in a historical context it needs to remain where it’s at? Is that statue worth more than any black person’s feelings? I’d argue no.