We Need To Rethink Monuments To People

Aug 27, 2018

There’s been a lot debate over Confederate monuments. One in downtown Salisbury was recently vandalized. Last week, the state Historical Commission voted to keep Confederate monuments on the state Capitol grounds, but to add signs that put them in context and erect memorials to African Americans. And there was the toppling of Silent Sam at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill.

WFAE’s Tommy Tomlinson says maybe it’s time to start over when it comes to monuments.

Maybe the way to start is by taking down ALL the statues.

All the ones of human beings, anyway. You can keep your mythological figures or your abstract artwork. The Firebird uptown isn’t hurting anybody. Unless someone runs into it on a scooter.

But it might be worth a long weekend to take down all the statues of people, or the ones that are supposed to represent a particular group. Then we can frame this whole question about statues and monuments a different way: Which ones deserve to go back up?

I’m afraid Silent Sam would not make the cut. He stood on the University of North Carolina campus for more than a century as a memorial to the school’s Confederate alumni who fought in the Civil War. Nobody wants to think of their ancestors as being on the wrong side of history.

But for the people in the back of the room, let’s state the obvious: The Confederacy tried to break apart the country in order to keep slavery alive. That wasn’t an acceptable thing to honor a hundred years ago, much less in 2018.

So a group of protesters took it on themselves last week to pull down the statue on the University of North Carolina campus. It shouldn’t have been done that way. Silent Sam should’ve been taken down by a university and a state that summoned the guts to do what was right. But for decades, they did nothing. So the protestors decided they needed to do something.

There are still hundreds of Confederate monuments throughout the South, and won’t it be fun to have a debate about every single one of those. But they aren’t the only problematic monuments. Here in Charlotte, Jerry Richardson’s statue remains outside the Panthers’ stadium, apparently part of the contract when he sold the team. Richardson let go of the Panthers after a series of stories detailed creepy patterns of sexual misconduct with his female employees. When the Panthers put up the statue, nobody told us it would be self-tarnishing.

This is the problem with building statues to human beings. Every single person we memorialize, from the faces on Mount Rushmore on down, has done something that’s hard to justify, and sometimes impossible to forgive. Many of our Founding Fathers owned slaves. Many of our most important cultural figures found themselves brought down by scandal. Did you know there used to be a bust of Bill Cosby at Disney World? As you might imagine, it’s not there anymore.

If we took all the statues down, we might not put most of them back up, and that would be fine. It’s dangerous to make any human being immortal, lifted above the rest of us, and that’s what a statue sets out to do. It’s better that we appreciate the complicated reality of being human. Let’s all make our own judgments about who deserves to be a hero.

I suspect most true heroes don’t want statues of themselves anyway. For the rest of us, maybe, statues aren’t about history as much as they are about vanity. And the problem with casting ourselves in bronze is that we all have feet of clay.

Tommy Tomlinson’s commentaries appear every Monday on WFAE and WFAE.org. They represent his opinion, not the opinion of WFAE. You can respond to his commentaries on wfae.org. You can also email Tommy at ttomlinson@wfae.org.