Race, Labor, and Statues

March 12, 2022   •   By Jack Christian

Smashing Statues: The Rise and Fall of America’s Public Monuments

Erin L. Thompson

IN AN EARLY chapter of Smashing Statues, art historian Erin L. Thompson takes on the Freedman’s Memorial, which has stood on Capitol Hill since 1876. The sculpture depicts a formerly enslaved man crouched at Abraham Lincoln’s feet. Below them, in large block print, reads the word “Emancipation.” Lincoln is gifting this man his freedom.

In the wake of George Floyd’s murder, the monument’s paternalistic portrayal caused some protesters to demand that it be taken down. Trump responded by issuing an executive order against “extremists […] ignorant of our history” and installing a fence around the statue. “Not going to happen here,” he told the press. That protesters wanted to topple a statue of Lincoln became a talking point for conservatives who claimed activists had gone too far. It marked a divide that Trump exploited: between those willing to accept the removal of some Confederate monuments and those arguing that the entire artistic portrayal of American history must be reconsidered.

Thompson, who teaches at John Jay College and calls herself “America’s only professor of art crime,” argues for reconsidering it all. Her book is the first from a major American publisher to take a comprehensive look at United States monuments after the Floyd-inspired protests. The historical context she presents for the Freedman’s Memorial is as damning as one could imagine. Thompson details how the project was funded by recently freed African Americans but designed exclusively by whites. Thomas Ball, the Massachusetts sculptor who was commissioned to create the statue, was so bigoted he couldn’t tolerate being in the same room with the Black man hired as a model for the ex-slave. Instead, he based the face of the kneeling man on Archer Alexander, who was never handed his freedom by a white man but freed himself twice. Ball based the kneeling ex-slave’s physique, flatteringly, on his own.

None of this was lost on Frederick Douglass, who spoke at the monument’s dedication. In his speech, Douglass criticized the depiction of a cowering Black man, but his critique was omitted from newspaper reports. The omission prompted Douglass to write a letter, published days later in The National Republican, where he reiterated, “What I want to see before I die is […] a monument representing the negro […] erect on his feet like a man.” This wouldn’t happen — in Washington, DC, at least — for 122 years, when the African American Civil War Memorial, which honors the more than 200,000 Black soldiers who fought in the war, was dedicated in 1998.

In this and other examples, the upshot of Smashing Statues is to show that the whole damn system is guilty. Thompson leaves no doubt that even our nation’s proudest moments are shot through with bigoted ideology. She makes a compelling case that equality is not achievable so long as our monuments convey overt messages of white supremacy and so long as slave-owning white men’s names remain attached to buildings, parks, roads, and bridges. In so doing, she answers the question that often consumes public debate: how far back, and how deep, must we go? All the way and as deep as possible is Thompson’s unequivocal reply.

A second question, arguably more important and more difficult to answer, asks how dismantling racist monuments relates to dismantling institutional racism. Obviously, it is easier to take down a statue than it is to repair the racist ideas that put it there in the first place, and it can be hard to see how accomplishing the former encourages the latter.

By way of getting at this question, Thompson focuses on how Confederate monuments functioned not only to intimidate Black people but also to construct whites’ identities and behaviors. She discusses at length the ubiquitous tributes to the common Confederate soldier that went up across the South after Reconstruction and through the end of World War I, showing how the statues helped recenter white, Southern masculinity around continued allegiance to a noble cause. At one point in her analysis, Thompson asks readers to stand and strike the pose of these infantrymen. This illustrates her claim that the figures’ posture is not one of power or defiance. The soldiers are instead cast in a stance meant to convey obedience, a stance known as parade rest. As such, Thompson argues, the mass-produced statues were fundamental to constructing a mythic, antebellum past, in which white heritage was defined as deference to social superiors, and harmony was produced by knowing one’s place.

Beyond offering rearticulated masculinity for common men, the statues were integral to elite Southerners’ revisionist attempts to justify secession, not as an illegal rebellion but as a fight that was somehow for the Constitution. I read Smashing Statues at the same time that I read Barton Gellman’s essay in The Atlantic, “Trump’s Next Coup Has Already Begun.” This happenstance caused me to hear more precisely how current attempts by Trump loyalists to revise the January 6, 2020, insurrection into a valiant freedom fight echoes Lost Cause rhetoric from 150 years ago. It made Gellman’s piece even more terrifying.

Thompson eventually intersects her arguments about race and labor by linking the erection of Confederate monuments directly to union-busting efforts, in which nascent alliances between white and Black workers, such as those made by the Fusionist Party, were fractured by monument dedications that included parades of Confederate veterans. In fact, Confederate monuments at the North Carolina State House and in Birmingham, Alabama, were funded, constructed, and dedicated at the behest of rich white businessmen who hoped overtly to split white and Black workers and successfully defeated unionization drives by using monuments to swell Confederate nostalgia in both places.

Ultimately, Thompson provides a compelling, historical account of how capitalism is both motivator and maintainer of institutional racism. She depicts clearly the role that monuments play in fostering the divisions necessary for labor exploitation. Even in the North, where the same mass-produced statues were figured as Union soldiers, the Union’s victory was presented as bestowing freedom on Black people, not as a fight for human rights in which Black soldiers participated. Everywhere in the United States, the intent was to codify the idea that white people would rule, and Black people would remain dependent.

While dismantling racist monuments is only one aspect of the ongoing struggle for racial justice, Thompson’s historical accounts allow sympathetic readers to be sure that their removal is central to achieving both racial and economic solidarity. In the present moment, this history further elucidates how our current political parties work in tandem to produce and deepen our divides, with Republicans playing overtly to white fears of “Black dominance” and Democrats too captured by the interests of billionaires to advance redistributive economic policies that could unite diverse groups of working people. Thompson shows that whether monuments are smashed by protesters or removed by public officials, their disappearance makes worker solidarity and racial equality more imaginable. And, although this is not her direct intent, her analysis makes clear that if we are headed for some version of a second civil war, then it will have been driven by animosity sown and facilitated by the ultrarich because such animosity is profitable.

The last half of Smashing Statues focuses on recent efforts to bring down offensive monuments in the wake of Floyd-inspired protests. In one chapter, Thompson interviews Mike Forcia, the Indigenous American activist who organized the destruction of the Christopher Columbus statue that had sat on the lawn outside Saint Paul’s Minnesota State Capitol building. In another, she meets with Randall Woodfin, the mayor of Birmingham, Alabama, who defied state law to bring down the Confederate monument there.

But, as Thompson explains, the protests resulted in more laws for preserving monuments than they did in actual monuments being removed. Moreover, Thompson’s reporting exposes the extent to which communities lack processes for seeking removal, while those opposed to removing monuments rely on legal murkiness to keep them in place. The statue in Saint Paul provides a maddening example: for years, Forcia and other activists were urged by Minnesota officials to “follow [the] process” for requesting removal, only to learn that such a process did not exist. Thompson points out that when a monument is destroyed by protesters, it is almost always after years, if not decades, of attempting to locate legal methods to do so. As it has been for the entirety of American history, even when it is protesters doing the work, monuments still only come down when they become embarrassing for those in power. Most continue to stand as they always have and with new obstacles to ever getting rid of them. Sadly, an alternate, more boring title for Thompson’s book could have been Preserving Statues.

Even so, Thompson does well to expose the Kafkaesque bureaucracies that surround monuments through conversations that enliven these legal morasses. Her interviews with Forcia and Woodfin make for engaged reading. I wished there were more interviews and a closer examination of the travails faced by those who seek to remove statues. The scenes she does offer have a hint of the charm and insight of the late Tony Horwitz, whose books Confederates in the Attic and Spying on the South bring more characters to life but sometimes tread too lightly on questions related to race and labor. Thompson addresses these head-on.

If anything, by the end of Smashing Statues, I hoped for a more comprehensive vision of what future public art might look like and the roles it might play in public spaces. Thompson is clear about what monuments should not do. They should not continue to depict historical figures as giant heroes, constructed to appear more powerful than the rest of us. In her view, this goes beyond Confederate monuments’ glorification of racism and violence. Even statues dedicated to peace and justice are likely to inspire apathy if we can’t see ourselves as capable of the actions they memorialize, Thompson claims. After critiquing the Women’s Rights Pioneers Monument in New York’s Central Park, in part for putting Sojourner Truth, Susan B. Anthony, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton too much on a pedestal, she concludes, “If monuments try to keep us where we are by holding up examples of impossibly perfect people, well, maybe we don’t need them at all.”

But this made me wonder what monuments can do and what Thompson thinks they should do. Beyond calling for more monuments in which people can see themselves, she has less to say on this subject. It’s a shame because her conceptual framework of “smashing statues” lends itself to considering more imaginative methods of smashing. Take my hometown, Richmond, Virginia, as an example. I sometimes imagine, perhaps too hopefully, that the Arthur Ashe Memorial, erected in 1996, was a silent catalyst to recent conversations about public art. Could it be viewed as a manner of, if not “smashing statues,” at least smashing racist conceptions of who belongs where? What about Kehinde Wiley’s Rumors of War, installed in 2019 in front of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts?

Or, what about the new monument in Denton, Texas, where I live now? The monument honors the Denton Women’s Interracial Fellowship, a group that was instrumental in desegregating Denton’s schools. This new installation presents an array of colorful medallions that show the group members, their pledge to honor the dignity of everyone, and pictures of the ongoing struggle for civil rights. Many of the images are adapted from snapshots, which invite viewers to envision themselves as change agents. Because the images are both new and old, the monument becomes a call for future activism as much as it is a tribute to the past. When I first viewed it at its dedication on December 11, 2021, I interpreted it as smashing ideas of whom public art should honor and how that art should appear.

I agree with Thompson when she claims that adding new monuments will never be enough if we can’t remove the old ones, but I wanted more of a sense of where to go from here. Her examination of “art crime” as central to understanding our shameful United States history is captivating. So too would I have been glad to read more about current and future possibilities for “art justice.”

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Jack Christian is a direct descendant of Stonewall Jackson and an advocate for removing Confederate monuments. He lives in Denton, Texas.