Statues: To Be or Not To Be?

Michael Kagan

Statues of slave owners, Confederate Army officers, and others considered heroes have been scattered around cities and towns in the United States for generations. The vast majority were white men of some distinction, seen positively at the time of the statues’ placement, but under scrutiny now for their dubious accomplishments and places in history. This scrutiny is, unfortunately, blind destruction, not a thoughtfully considered approach to history.

Jefferson Davis Views His Own Grave
Jefferson Davis Views His Own Grave

While at this time we may balk at honoring many of these men, and choose not to erect monuments to them, it is a serious error to remove these pieces from public view. Destroying a statue does not destroy the record of what these men did. Obliterating them from our consciousness does not make our shared history any more pleasant.

Certainly we don’t want to celebrate the cruelty of people who treated fellow human beings as property, nor those who fought a war, killing hundreds of thousands of fellow citizens, to maintain what they felt was their right to this awful arrangement. But does desecration of their bronze likenesses change what they did? Does it improve the lot of the descendants of those slaves? Of course not! Obviously, those descendants do not want to be insulted by the affirmation given to these people in the public square that they are forced to see every day.

There is, however, a better option to resolve the issue of the mistreatment of people of color: blacks, Native Americans, and immigrants from other countries in the Americas, than pretending those perpetrators of injustice and inhumanity did not exist.

We’ve all seen statues of heroic figures on horseback or posed in glory and wondered who they were. Perhaps there were plaques that gave the names and even dates of birth and death. Very few plaques indicate what was significant about the person above them. Because of the way history is taught in our schools, most people can see a name on a plaque and not know who that person was or what s/he did to be worthy of this immortality.

It would serve all of us, victims and victimizers, to have an explanation of the person or event sculpted in bronze on the pedestal. This could be written out on the plaque, or displayed in a QR code that can be interpreted by a photo taken with one’s phone. The text should be unflinchingly accurate, a warts-and-all description, one from which people can truly learn about our checkered past.

We’re all familiar with the statement by the Spanish philosopher George Santayana (1863-1952), or its many subsequent variants, that “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”. Let’s not forfeit an effective opportunity to teach and learn from mistakes of the past.


Let these people be an example of what NOT to do!