Blog: Monuments, Memory, and Melodrama

By Jessica Roitman

“History is being erased!” So cried Donald Trump, surely no great student of history, in sudden righteous indignation earlier this week. His mass of supporters have roused themselves from perusing the aisles of Wal-Marts across rural America and declared their fervent devotion to stained old statuary.

As an historian, I should be joining their tiki torch wielding ranks to defend my discipline from its apparent eradication. I won’t be. Not only do I have aesthetic aversions to Polynesian kitsch, not to mention white bed linen as a wardrobe accessory, I also have an ideological distaste for racism, anti-Semitism, white Nationalism, and fascism. Beyond these valid reasons for not joining their calls to “protect our history,” however, Trump and his minions are simply wrong about history being “changed.”
That’s because there’s a clear difference between history and memory. Historical memory – how we remember and interpret the past – is always shifting. This shift is most clearly seen in memorializations, particularly monuments and statues in the likeness of some long dead man (and it’s almost always a man). These figures dot the world’s parks, squares, and other public spaces, generally ignored, covered in bird poop, and serving far more frequently as meeting points than as lessons in history. Yet they emerge from obscurity at times of cultural conflict as symbolic rallying points for larger questions about values, beliefs, and identity.

That’s what’s happening at the moment in the United States where slavery and its legacies continue to debated. But it’s not just the fractious Americans who are concerned with memorials. Monuments seen as symbols of European colonialism have been torn down in several countries. In Cape Town, South Africa, a statue of the imperialist businessman Cecil John Rhodes was dismantled in 2015. The debate in the lead up to the removal of the statue has sparked a world-wide movement, ‘Rhodes Must Fall’ which has now morphed into a loose amalgamation of groups addressing larger issues of decolonization and its legacies. In Caracas, Venezuela, a monument to Christopher Columbus, who claimed the land for Spain during the 1400s, was toppled in 2004 and replaced by one of Guaicaipuro, an indigenous chief who resisted Spanish conquerors. Triumphalist representations of colonialism in Europe itself have not been immune. In France, the names of men formerly considered heroes of French colonialism were sandblasted off the side of the old Ecole coloniale in the 1980s. Some other monuments to colonial worthies were shifted to obscure locations.

Perhaps inevitably, the celebration of the colonial past is transmuted to a commemoration of anti-colonialism, ironically usually in much same style as the toppled oppressors’ memorials. A new monument, invariably an imposing and heroic image, is erected in a central location. To take just one example, in Windhoek, in the former German Southwest Africa, the government dedicated a ‘Heroes Acre’ in 2002. The site of Namibia’s national war memorial covers a huge area, incorporating a graveyard. The tallest element is an obelisk of marble and granite with an eight-meter tall statue of an unknown soldier—designed by a North Korean firm – in socialist realist style, much like monuments to the perpetrators of colonial conquests the world over.

So monuments rise and fall and rise again. In recent years, as a case in point, authorities in Dakar re-erected in the central part of the city a First World War memorial to French and Senegalese soldiers, a monument which, after Senegalese independence in 1960, had been banished to the periphery of the city. All of which illustrate what James Grossman, the executive director of the American Historical Association, meant when he said that when you alter monuments, “You’re not changing history. You’re changing how we remember history.”

In short, no historical memorialization is a reflection of objective fact. Memorials are the ways in which we, as a society, tell each other what we value, and what we want to build a common heritage around. Thus, it’s not surprising that as what societies value ebbs, flows, and shifts, monuments and memorializations change too. All of which means that Donald Trump and his bed sheet garbed friends needn’t worry. Robert E. Lee, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, and Adolf Hitler haven’t been erased from history. History hasn’t even changed. Rather, the public memorialization of their heroes has begun to change, and none too soon, if you ask me.

(Jessica Roitman is a researcher at KITLV working on Caribbean History. Her project, ‘The Dutch Windward Islands: Confronting the Contradictions of Belonging, 1815-2015,’ examines the intersection of migration, governance, and (hybridized) identities on the islands of Saba, St. Maarten, and St. Eustatius. This is part of the NWO-funded ‘Confronting Caribbean Challenges: Hybrid Identities and Governance in Small-scale Island Jurisdictions’ project. Roitman has worked on diverse topics including inter-cultural trade, networks and network failure, comparative migration histories, the construction of identities and ethnicities, trans-nationality, conflict resolution, cross-cultural encounters, and the dynamics of colonial law-making.)

Picture: “Young men in Ethiopia dismantle the statue of the Russian Bolshevik revolutionary leader Vladimir Lenin in Addis Ababa on May 23, 1991, two days after the exiled departure of Ethiopia’s pro-Communist strongman Mengistu Haile Mariam”. CreditAgence France-Presse — Getty Images

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