What started out as an earnest effort by some to remove statues glorifying a rebellion by the slavery-defending Confederacy has devolved into an absurd effort to destroy all vestiges of the past. Things became especially stupid in Boston as 2020 came to a close, with the city removing the Emancipation Memorial.
Viewed without any context or understanding of its history, it appears to show a slave kneeling before President Abraham Lincoln. In actuality, what the statue depicts is Lincoln holding the Emancipation Proclamation and the slave, shackles broken, looking forward toward his freedom.
The Boston statue is actually a reproduction of the Freedman’s Memorial in Washington, D.C. The original monument was financed by small contributions raised by black people, most of whom were emancipated slaves.
As Frederick Douglass biographer David Blight has written, when the statue was dedicated, it was a triumphant moment for liberated black people.
“A huge parade involving nearly every black organization in the city preceded the dedication of the monument on April 14, 1876,” he wrote. “The procession included cornet bands, marching drum corps, youth clubs in colorful uniforms and fraternal orders. Horse-drawn carriages transported master of ceremonies and Howard University law school dean, John Mercer Langston, and the orator of the day, Frederick Douglass, a resident of that neighborhood. Representatives of the entire U.S. government sat in the front rows at the ceremony; the occasion had been declared a federal holiday. President Ulysses S. Grant, members of his Cabinet, members of the House and Senate and justices of the Supreme Court all attended.”
The historian noted that Douglass’s speech represented the first time that a black orator addressed the full government.
Blight contended that while, by today’s standards, the Washington statue could be argued to contain racist imagery, it should not be removed. He wrote: “Please consider the people who created it and what it meant for their lives in a century not our own. We ought not try to purify their past and present for our needs.”
The same should go to the replica statue in Boston. It is crucial to our understanding of history to know how past generations viewed themselves.
As attitudes and perceptions change over time, it is perfectly appropriate for certain monuments of the past to be given more context. In this case, perhaps children visiting could be prompted to reflect on how depictions of slaves changed over time. They could think about how they perceive the monument and study why black people at the time viewed it differently.
Today’s woke police eschew nuance and want to move full speed ahead with destroying all representations of a past they view as racist rather than seeking to understand its complexity.
During his speech dedicating the original monument, Douglass reflected upon this approach to history. He criticized Lincoln for initially advocating the strategy of resettling slaves in another country, among other things. But he praised him for eventually embracing emancipation.
If a famed escaped slave who lived for years as a fugitive and had plenty to be angry about could embrace such nuance, then it should be incumbent upon all of us to do so.