BOSTON, MASSACHUSETTS - JANUARY 06, 2014: Robert Gould Shaw Memorial Boston. © Mindauga Dulinska - Dreamstime.com
Robert Gould Shaw was the white leader of the first all-black volunteer Union army. This memorial to him sits in front of the Massachusetts State House on Boston Common © Dreamstime

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I was struck recently by a piece by New York Times art critic Holland Cotter that looked at the growing debate, in the era of Black Lives Matter, over which historic statues and monuments should remain in public spaces and which should be taken down. It’s a complex discussion that I’d like to build on in today’s Note.

Certain statues, including various Confederate memorials and monuments to slave owners, have rightfully come under fire — even if you view them as symbols of national history, as some Southerners do, it’s hard to justify using tax dollars from an increasingly diverse population to glorify such figures. I’m not in the camp that wants to see these monuments destroyed, however. I’d rather see them moved off public grounds and put some place where they can be used for study or teaching. Torching them feels very Cultural Revolution to me. Such monuments tell us a lot about where people were at any given moment in history, no matter how abhorrent that history was, and that’s important stuff. 

One good example of a statue that was rightfully considered unfit for state glorification but still had a lot to tell us is “Civic Virtue”, by the sculptor Frederick MacMonnies, which was, over time, moved from City Hall in Manhattan to a public space in Queens and then to its current resting place in Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery, which is just a few blocks from where I live. Poor MacMonnies, who I can only guess must have been a very pre-Freudian sort of guy, had the misfortune to represent Virtue as a giant David-like male figure and Vice as a bunch of writhing, mermaid-like females (upon whom Man stands) just as women were getting the vote. I wouldn’t want to see this thing honoured in a capital, but I get a giggle out of it, as do my kids, every time we stroll through the cemetery. This sort of historical perspective is, to my mind, invaluable. 

But what happens when statues cause not laughter, but pain? Like many New Yorkers I know, I was happy to see the American Museum of Natural History make the decision to move an equestrian statue of Theodore Roosevelt that screams “white men rule” from the museum’s entrance. The statue was a weird, historically inaccurate fantasy in which Teddy, looking regal on horseback, is flanked by an African and a Native American on foot, both of which were fictional figures crafted by the sculptor to look very “native” and subservient.

But what about the memorial to Civil War hero Robert Gould Shaw which sits in front of the Massachusetts State House on Boston Common? Shaw was the white leader of the first all-black volunteer Union army, and he marched his troops, who included two sons of African-American civil rights advocate Frederick Douglass, into battle against the Confederates in South Carolina. Many soldiers, including Shaw, died, and he was buried with his men (as depicted in the movie Glory). The statue is by Augustus Saint-Gaudens and it is considered one of finest pieces of public sculpture in the country. Shaw is on horseback and his men walk. But they do so in a historically accurate way, in uniform. 

Some people would like to see this sculpture come down too, because it represents the racial hierarchies that existed then, when it was considered necessary for a white leader to head the all-black regiment. Honestly, I’m not sure how to feel about it.

We have some personal interest in this statue in my house, because Shaw is my husband John Shaw Sedgwick’s ancestor and namesake. He has the strong box in which Shaw received his orders in his office. But my husband doesn’t use his middle name because as he’s told me, he finds the thought of appropriating any greatness from the deeds of his ancestor embarrassing, since he hasn’t done anything nearly as honourable (his words not mine). 

So, as part of the national conversation we’re all having, I want to open the debate up to you, Ed, and to our readers. Should Shaw come down? Where should the statue go, if so? And how should we all be thinking about these decisions?

Recommended reading

  • David Brooks adds, as he always does, to the complex debates about race and class in America today in his New York Times column about the five crises we are facing.

  • Daniel Henninger does the same in The Wall Street Journal (and no, I don’t agree with everything here, but it’s still a good and important read).

  •  And in the FT, my colleague Janan Ganesh adds yet another worthy beat to this debate, with his piece on how conservatives lost the culture war.

Edward Luce responds

Rana, I have a simple rule for American statues: purge the public squares and street names of Confederate figures. No more Fort Braggs, or Lee Highways or statues of southern generals. They fought for a cause that was unremittingly evil and should not be honoured. Their presence is a terrible signal to descendants of slaves and anyone of any colour with a conscience. You say that such monuments tell us where people were at any given moment in history, which is true. Most Confederate monuments were erected during the 1920s and 1930s when the Ku Klux Klan was surging. Some were even put up in the 1950s in response to civil rights activity. They were erected for political reasons to signal to uppity blacks that they should give up trying to overturn Jim Crow. There is no case for keeping their likenesses in public spaces, or their names on buildings or thoroughfares. I agree that they should be put in museums rather than smashed. 

Other statues that do not glorify the losing side of the civil war should be debated case by case. In Britain, I would keep Winston Churchill but remove Cecil Rhodes. The former's statue is ubiquitous because he stood alone against Nazism. Churchill is not honoured because of his derogatory view of Indians and other colonial peoples but in spite of them. Rhodes was a rapacious colonialist and should be removed.

Teddy Roosevelt, like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, is a more complex figure. I would be in favour of keeping them. But we should welcome debates about the role of any historic figure. Whatever our decision, we learn from weighing their merits. I love George Washington. He could have effectively crowned himself king of the republic but he chose to set an example by removing his general's uniform and stepping down after two terms. On the other hand, only one of the teeth in his mouth was his own by 1789 (until that point he had presumably been using British dentists). All the other teeth were pulled from his slaves, of which he owned roughly 300. I can fully see why that small but heart-stopping detail might give people deep pause for thought. 

As regards John's ancestor, Robert Gould Shaw, I can see no reason to remove him. Perhaps another statue can be erected nearby to represent some of his men, say the Douglass sons. But for goodness sake keep Shaw. He was a good man who died for a noble cause. America is a democracy, not a department of French semiotics. 

Your feedback

And now a word from our Swampians . . .

In response to Could this election capsize America?:
“It’s arguable that the US already capsized when a sociopathic conman was elected president. But to his credit, Trump has mobilised a huge movement of young people (of all colours and backgrounds) who will not take it any more. In Dee Snider’s words —

“We’ll fight the powers that be, just
Don’t pick our destiny ‘cause
You don’t know us, you don’t belong.”

Move over boomers — your time is done.” — Chris Millerchip, Rye, New York

In response to From Big Tech to Big Food:
“The change will require American consumers to adopt to seasonality of food stuffs and significantly higher prices for fresh food. This means you might not get year round salad, fruits and other perishable produce, not to mention bananas, pineapples and exotic Asian fruits. Yes, Big Meat and Dairy is a problem, especially as you work your way through the supply chain and try to get sustainable product. But, you need to ask the question on the consumer economics of food — will a family of four (both parents working minimum wage jobs) shopping at Aldi or Walmart pay 25 per cent more for chopped beef, pork, hot dogs, cheese or milk, simply to be local? How do you handle food deserts, whether in New York, Dallas or rural Kansas?” — Dennis Gerson, Colleyville, Texas

We'd love to hear from you. You can email the team on swampnotes@ft.com, contact Ed on edward.luce@ft.com and Rana on rana.foroohar@ft.com, and follow them on Twitter at @RanaForoohar and @EdwardGLuce. We may feature an excerpt of your response in the next newsletter.

 

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