The ostensible provocation that led white nationalists to organize a march in Charlottesville was the city’s plan to remove its statue of Robert E. Lee. This was not the first of such "provocations," nor will it be the last. Across the nation, on campuses from Yale to Stanford, discussion proliferates: Should colleges remove monuments and plaques and rename buildings that celebrate figures who were involved in slave trading, Native American extermination, child-labor exploitation, and fierce opposition to universal suffrage?
If educating the citizenry about the nation’s history is a goal, and if higher education is to play a pivotal role in that education, there is a better way to confront the dark underside of the country’s history.
One inspiring model of an alternative approach is the restoration of the Lyric Theater, in Birmingham, Ala. The theater first opened its doors in 1914, mainly to vaudeville acts. Among many storied performers, it featured Mae West, Sophie Tucker, and the Marx Brothers. It was recently restored, after more than a century that, of course, included a long period of racial segregation.
During its first six decades, the Lyric had a separate entrance for black patrons, who were required to climb three flights of stairs and sit on benches. In contrast to Charlottesville’s handling of the Lee statue, in Birmingham the restorers decided to maintain that history, to keep that door and its separate entrance. Visitors are reminded of the past, something that should serve as a model for what we need to do with our monuments to bygone days.
Rather than remove the statues of Nathan Bedford Forrest across Tennessee (Forrest was a founder of the Ku Klux Klan), and rather than remove the statue of Lee and other plantation owners who fought to preserve slavery, we need to do something akin to what was done with the Lyric Theater. Leave the statues in place, but right beside Forrest and Lee, place a statue of William Lloyd Garrison or Charles Sumner or Frederick Douglass: abolitionists who fought against slavery. In so doing, we can provide a fuller historical context and a source of informed dialogue about our past.
Yale University is never going to change its name, even though Elihu Yale was not just a slave owner but a slave trader as well. Still, there should be a movement to juxtapose a memorial to Elihu Yale with a similar one to an ardent opponent of slavery — something that would encourage Yale’s students to have an honest dialogue about the history of their university.
Brown University should do the same. The Brown family embodied two extremes in our nation’s history: one branch, the slave owners, went on to found the university, while another included John Brown, who fought to free slaves. Why not have two statues at the university facing off, generating meaningful discussions about a history that should not be dismantled and buried?
In thinking about how to commemorate history, the philosopher Arthur Danto’s distinction between monuments and memorials is illuminating. In an essay on Danto, the University of Richmond philosophy professor Gary Shapiro explains that monuments "demonstrate a community’s symbolic honoring of events and people for qualities it finds indispensable to its identity." In contrast, memorials, like the wall by Maya Lin to commemorate service members killed in Vietnam, are meant to ensure that certain events and people are not forgotten.
Yet while the distinction between memorials and monuments is useful, the categories are certainly not mutually exclusive. Germany has chosen to memorialize its role in the Holocaust; dispensing with euphemisms, the site, in Berlin, is called the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. A colleague recently visited the memorial and heard a German man in his 20s say that this was not about guilt or shame, although there was certainly plenty to be guilty of and shamed by. For him, it was important not to bury the truth and the pain and the horror of what happened. It was important not to flagellate the memorial’s visitors, but to remind them that what happened could happen again if they are not committed to resisting the impulses that lead to such atrocities.
By the turn of the century, the number of Native Americans in California had declined to fewer than 20,000. And while the agitation to rename Hastings Law School might succeed, a campaign to change Stanford University’s name has no more chance than any move to rename Yale. Why fight a losing battle that will only irritate many powerful alumni? Why not, instead, promote a movement to establish a memorial meaningfully juxtaposed to that of the architect and funder of Native American extermination projects?
We must insist that our history be told in all its complexity. We must illuminate and preserve the jarring and uncomfortable features of our past, not eradicate them.
Troy Duster is a professor emeritus of sociology at the University of California at Berkeley.