What follows is a guest post from Elizabeth Scarbrough.
In the past few weeks, we’ve seen people from various nations take to the street and graffiti, topple, and otherwise demand the removal of racist monuments. Among the more notable ousted statues in the United States is Confederate President Jefferson Davis on Monument Avenue in Richmond, Virginia, and slave-owning Founding Father Thomas Jefferson in Portland, Oregon. Christopher Columbus has fared no better, his statue beheaded in Boston and graffitied with blood on his hands in Miami. In the UK, slave-trader Edward Colson’s statue was toppled and thrown into Bristol harbor. And in Belgium a 150-year-old statue of King Leopold II was officially removed following mass protest.
Monuments are objects designed and created intentionally to remind us of something worth honoring. According to J.B. Jackson, “A traditional monument, as the origin of the word indicates, is an object which is supposed to remind us of something important. That is to say, it exists to put people in mind of some obligation they have incurred: a great public figure, a great public event, a great public declaration which the group had pledged itself to honor.” The aesthetic pleasure it might facilitate, Jackson believes, is secondary. In this way monuments have value as they remind their audience “of something important,” – some group commitment. While we might approach them as solitary individuals, their meaning is derived from some collective experience. As C. Thi Nguyen argues in “Monuments as Commitments: How Art Speaks to Groups and How Groups Think in Art” monuments are not only backward-looking. They ask us to commit to protect values, then act according to those values. In this sense, we rightfully decide to jettison values that no longer serve us – and consequently monuments of racist figures must too be jettisoned. And if it is time for these racist monuments to die, the question is – what should we do with their bodies? Continue reading