National myths and monuments

Season two, episode four, of the OMNIA podcast ‘In These Times’ features three faculty discussing the movement to reexamine monuments and the history and myths they symbolize.

Season two, episode four, of the OMNIA podcast “In These Times” features three faculty discussing the movement to reexamine monuments and the history and myths they symbolize, and how the public should think about the artworks in public squares.

Cartoon depicting Black Lives Matter images, a black fist, NO JUSTICE NO PEACE, and a statue of a horse.
Image: Adriana Bellet

During the worldwide protests that followed the death of George Floyd, demonstrators mobilized to challenge the representations of history presented by some of the monuments and memorials that occupy our public squares. An anthropologist, a sociologist, and an art historian reflect on why there has been such a focus on these symbols in this moment, how they shape our historical narrative and myths, and how to move forward.

The episode, “National Myths and Monuments,” features Margaret Bruchac, associate professor of anthropology and coordinator of Native American and Indigenous studies; Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw, Class of 1940 Bicentennial Term Associate Professor of History of Art; and Tukufu Zuberi, Lasry Professor of Race Relations in the Departments of Sociology and Africana Studies.

Episode four highlights:

3:07: [Tukufu Zaberi] “The racism inherent in putting up a statue of Robert E. Lee in a very public place without a disclaimer and a cover so that I don’t have to see it is an insult. And the only way people don’t see it as an insult is because of a fake conversation about what the Civil War was about. It is a way to hide the truth.”

5:50: [Tukufu Zaberi] “We had long been trying to think about the role of monuments, the roles of material culture in how we understand our national narrative. So understand I was organizing a new Africa gallery, but organizing it to have a critical intervention in what people in the United States think about who they are. Because it is our national narratives that we end up telling, it is not the narratives of those places. It is not the narratives of the past. We put objects in our wave to be viewed as a way of triggering things in our mind, to bring to our consciousness, certain symbolic representations of what we think is important.”

11:39: [Margaret Bruchac] “There were small groups of people who have been pushing for generations to draw attention to the legacies of colonization, the monuments to colonization, the naming of places for places in Europe, the complete destruction in some cases of indigenous homelands, indigenous histories at the expense of promoting colonizer’s histories. That is not a new issue. But somehow in the midst of the Black Lives Matter movement, you could almost see the lens turn and the focus turn. And so I’ve actually had people say to me, isn’t it wonderful that the Black Lives Matter movement has brought a little bit of attention to Native American lives? And I like to say, no, that’s not wonderful. That is yet another aspect of the problem. And it’s another part of the effects of systemic racism are such that some kinds of racism are more visible than others. And some acts are seen as more destructive than others.”

20:04: [Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw] “However, [Freedman’s Memorial in Washington, DC] does show a very paternalistic view of what emancipation meant at that moment. In the 1870s and 80s, it meant Black people kneeling and saying, thank you because our society was still incredibly repressive and reconstruction had just been utterly destroyed. Reconstruction didn’t fail. It was destroyed politically. And recognizing that history I think is really important, but it’s not something that can be easily communicated. And just putting up a new plaque there that explains all this, like not everybody reads these things. They see, and then immediately things get moving and they don’t necessarily ... They’re interpretive juices get moving and they don’t necessarily read all the plaques that are right. And that’s the challenge. When visual representation is so powerful that the textual accompaniment is obscured and overlooked and insufficient.”

Listen to the podcast in full at OMNIA.