The Emancipation Memorial in Lincoln Park in Washington, D.C., portrays President Abraham Lincoln, holding his Emancipation Proclamation, with a freshly freed slave at his feet. The statue was erected in 1876 — and certainly is a product of its time.
We have bigger fish to fry than to worry about our public statues, I hear you whine.
You probably maybe are right. COVID-19 continues to ravage the nation because we are a nation of adolescents and thus couldn’t remain locked down for even three full months and so we reopened way prematurely, just collectively pretending that it was all clear; unemployment due to the novel coronavirus pandemic remains a huge problem; the cops, most of them white, keep killing black Americans (men, mostly) when a non- or less-lethal response was possible; and our long-standing problems, such as climate change, insane income inequality and the over-militarization of our nation, of course remain untouched under the “leadership” of the unelected and thus illegitimate “President” Pussygrabber.
But statues are part of the American culture, and it’s not only that Americans create the national culture, but that the national culture also forms Americans.
Generally speaking, a public statue is erected because someone and/or some event is not only to be commemorated, but is to be venerated. Most statues are not, of course, neutral, but are statements of that society’s highest values.
Therefore, it’s entirely appropriate that all public commemorations of the fucking Confederacy, including statues, be removed from public view. Treason, white-supremacist racism and slavery are not to be venerated.
I don’t maintain that all of the offensive and oppressive statues have to be destroyed, but they should be removed from public view. I’m OK with them being warehoused or placed in museums if they’re part of the history that the museum is telling.
But they don’t belong in the public square. All of us have the right to be out and about in public without our senses, our psyches and our souls being assaulted by symbols of tyranny, ignorance and hatred.
True, we could go pretty far with this exercise. George Washington owned slaves. So did Thomas Jefferson. So did even Benjamin Franklin. Ditto for John Hancock and Patrick Henry. I’m not advocating that we raze the Washington Monument or the Jefferson Memorial. Indeed, these monuments were not raised in praise of slavery, but some of the background history there nonetheless is pretty fucking ugly.
Abraham Lincoln, my favorite president, of course never owned a slave, but then again, he also grew up in poverty, and I’d like to think that he’d never have been a slave holder even if he had grown up in wealth and if his formative years had been spent in a slave state instead of mostly in Indiana and Illinois. (He was born in Kentucky, but his family moved to Indiana when he was a young boy and then to Illinois when he was a young man.)
And while Lincoln opposed slavery, he did not believe that whites and blacks were social equals (almost no white person in his day and age did) — something about Lincoln that we don’t routinely teach our young children in school.
Still, looking at Lincoln’s presidency, I think that on balance, given the steep challenges that faced him and how he fared with them, he is the best president that we’ve had.
(For the most part I agree with Wikipedia’s rather glowing assessment of Lincoln that he “led the nation through its greatest moral, constitutional, and political crisis in the American Civil War. He preserved the Union, abolished slavery, strengthened the federal government, and modernized the U.S. economy.”)
But that doesn’t mean that I have to like every statue or other public depiction of Lincoln, and the statue of Lincoln at the Emancipation Memorial (pictured above) — which, unshockingly, was paid for by donations from former slaves but was designed and sculpted by one or more white people — is problematic.
First and foremost, it portrays a white man as the slaves’ savior. Apparently, the white man never can lose; even though he enslaved abducted Africans in the first fucking place, he is to get kudos, too, for finally having set them free. Just: No.
I have a black co-worker who once blithely opined that Barack Obama was a great president because, among other things, she claimed, he “gave us gay marriage.”
No, not true. Not only was it the U.S. Supreme Court, not Obama, that ruled five years ago yesterday that same-sex marriage legally cannot be prohibited anywhere on U.S. soil, but even the U.S. Supreme Court didn’t “give” us non-heterosexuals equal marriage rights.
Those equal human rights already always were there; they were just being denied to us LGBT individuals by an oppressive, heterosexist majority. Ditto for the slaves, of course: Their right to be free always had existed; it was just being denied to them by the tyrannical white majority.
In Obergefell vs. Hodges, the Supreme Court simply acknowledged where the majority of the American people already were — that it was past the time to stop shitting and pissing upon LGBT individuals — and codified it.
Before and behind that was generations of fighting for equality by non-heterosexual and non-gender-conforming individuals, who often were brutalized and murdered.
Ditto in the case of Abraham Lincoln. Many, many others, obviously blacks as well as whites (and others), fought for — and died for — the abolition of slavery. That fight culminated in the Emancipation Proclamation, but to act as though the Emancipation Proclamation came out of thin air — or even from one person — is to ignore blatantly the actual history.
(Yet another parallel: Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, but did he “give” black Americans equal human and civil rights that even the Emancipation Proclamation hadn’t gained them? No. Again, many, many people had fought for — and died for — civil-rights advancements before Johnson signed any legislation. And these rights weren’t created, as they always already had existed.)
The statue at the Emancipation Memorial keeps the white man above the black man — figuratively as well as literally. The spirit of it is that the white man freed the black man — as though an act of nature, instead of white people, had created slavery — and the shadow aspect of that is that because the white man retains the upper hand over the black man, he could reverse himself and reinstitute the slavery of the black man at any time.
Note that Frederick Douglass, who justifiably had some issues with Lincoln, disliked the statue at the Emancipation Memorial, and note that, of course, since the statue commemorated the 11th anniversary of Lincoln’s death, we have no way of knowing what he himself would have thought of such a depiction of himself. (My best guess is that Lincoln would have thought the statue to be gauche, even for 1876.)
I surmise that the statue at the Emancipation Memorial will remain there for a time to come, as the issue of its continued existence is hashed out, but I’m perfectly OK with its removal. (It’s now being protected by a barrier because activists have targeted it to be removed.)
A statue that’s in the public square should represent the better angels of our nature.
I think that’s what Lincoln would have wanted.
P.S. This is a wonderful recent Washington Post news photo of the usual suspect arguing for the Emancipation Memorial to remain intact while an activist who supports its removal has to suffer his presence: