By Robin Maria DeLugan
Today, as historical monuments become the sites of protest against police violence and racism, new attention is drawn to the role they play in society. A monument that is seemingly relegated to yesterday, left standing for years without attention, might appear to escape controversy. However, more than just an object of concrete, marble or steel, now more than ever, monuments are understood to be influential objects of vibrant matter.
They can act on us in ways we might not have considered. More than symbolizing a particular past, monuments are a reflection of society’s present-day values, as well as its goals for the future.
Often majestic in form, a monument is intended to command attention and even inspire reverence—until they no longer do so, or unless they never have. A multitude of monuments dot the nation’s landscape. What significance do these monuments have for contemporary society?
Through physicality and grandeur, monuments convey the appearance of age-old consensus. There is an assumption that we all accept the history represented and that we share an understanding of its importance. However, as demonstrated by the activities around many monuments across the country associated with movements to value Black lives, monuments can lack universal acceptance.
Instead, the narratives about the past that monuments enshrine are being challenged today by counter-stories and refusals from a public that makes reference to an oppressive past and connections to negative legacies that remain. Silences that might have previously surrounded long-standing monuments are now being shattered as the memory site’s power to uphold racism, promote violence and sow division is brought into public awareness.
I am an anthropologist who studies national historical memory around the world. Understanding that national societies and their ongoing projects of nation building are dynamic, I follow how some societies turn to history and memory to bring attention to 20th century episodes of state violence and authoritarianism, and to confront unresolved social justice issues.
My research examines how history and memory are connected to efforts to imagine a more just, democratic and inclusive nation. Monuments, both old and new, are central to that process.
When I examine a public monument, it is with a critical lens. Who erected the monument? When? And why? What is symbolized? Who and what is included in the narrative, and what is excluded? In what other ways is the particular history commemorated: when, where, how and by whom? Are there silences or counternarratives and public critique that surround the monument?
To promote shared ideas about the national past, monuments often appear in the nation’s capital. That same reference to the past can also be expressed by monuments installed in local or sub-national locations.
More broadly, we can even look at transnational historical memory and see that certain ideas about the past are communicated across national borders. For example, Christopher Columbus, a symbol of the European colonization that introduced a racial logic into our hemisphere, is heralded in many countries around the world.
Because historical memory often enshrines myths and legitimates non-truths, there can be synergies between these monuments and other ways that we learn about the past. There can also be clashes. In the United States, our present moment of social reckoning draws attention to the conflicts that surround particular monuments and what they express about the nation’s past, present and future.
During this time of national upheaval over police violence and enduring structural racism, monuments are receiving new consideration. In particular, monuments to Confederate soldiers of the Civil War (1861–1865) are indicted for valuing efforts to maintain slavery. Monuments to Christopher Columbus are being targeted for association with racial inequality and genocide. Here in California, activists pursue monuments to Junípero Serra, a Franciscan priest who led the Catholic Church’s mission system that decimated California’s native population.
Accused of being symbols of White supremacy, genocide and racism, we watch as monuments are toppled, defaced and removed. We are justified in asking why the history they represent is valorized. What opportunities exist for a more accurate telling of the past?
Illustrating how monuments signify more than the past is to note that they are usually created decades, if not centuries, following the events they signify. As such, they are more a reflection of that present-day context than the deep past being commemorated.
From 1890 to 1915, more than 1,500 monuments were erected in the United States to commemorate the fallen Confederate soldiers of the Civil War and the Confederates’ lost bid to keep slavery legal. First appearing 30 years after the war, we must examine the interests and motives of those who found it important to put up the monuments.
In the U.S. South, it was during the post–Civil War era of Reconstruction. Slavery was abolished, but other forms of violence were perpetuated against Blacks. The monuments erected to Confederate soldiers during this time, and still today, serve foremost as a reminder of White supremacy.
In 2015, despite widespread protest, Junípero Serra was canonized a saint by the Catholic Church. For those who criticize Serra’s place in history, he represents the brutality against indigenous populations begun by Spanish colonization and that extended into the future through U.S. manifest destiny. The Catholic mission system that Serra developed (1769–1784) relied on enslaved and coerced native labor.
So great is the ideology of beneficence that surrounds Serra and the mission system, fourth graders in California public schools have been required to re-create models of the missions as they learn California history. Across California, there are monuments, statues, plaques, streets and parks that bear Junípero Serra’s name. His legacy is considered so important to national history that since 1931 a statue to him has been one of two statues representing California in the U.S. Capitol’s Statuary Hall.
Demonstrating the dynamic nature of history and memory, protests and challenges against venerating Serra are beginning to have an effect. There have been proposals in the California legislature to replace Serra’s statue in Washington, D.C., with Dr. Sally Ride, the first American woman and youngest person in space. Still, California continues to be absent a truthful account of the California Indian experience.
The racism that plagues our society will not be eliminated until we examine history and recognize that it is forged through genocide, colonialism and slavery. Instead of assuming that historical monuments are harmless decorative objects on the landscape, we must question whether they reflect today’s values and a shared vision for the future.
If hateful symbols of a shameful past cannot be re-signified for common purpose, they can be replaced with monuments to truth and justice instead.
Robin Maria DeLugan, Ph.D., is associate professor of anthropology at UC Merced. She is author of the books Reimagining National Belonging: Post-Civil War El Salvador in a Global Context (University of Arizona Press, 2012) and Remembering Violence: How Nations Grapple with their Difficult Pasts (Routledge, forthcoming 2020), and numerous articles about historical memory and nation-state building.