In the wake of protests against deeply entrenched racism, statues of slave traders and Confederate leaders are being torn town and toppled both in the U.S. and abroad. The dismantling of Confederate statues in this particular moment are not spontaneous acts of destruction; they follow decades of debate and peaceful protest about the significance and messaging around the public display of symbols of the Confederacy. Some, however, worry that the removal of public monuments will equate to the erasure of our collective history.
None of this is anything new. As University of Iowa historian Sarah Bond has written, the practice goes all the way back to antiquity—to the Romans, the ancient Egyptians, and the ancient Assyrians.
Moses was so angry about the Israelites building the idolatrous Golden Calf that he broke the two tablets of stone upon which the Ten Commandments were written by God. He then burned the calf to ashes, and made the Israelites drink them.
In the realm of politics, as early as 2700 B.C., statues of ancient Near Eastern Kings included inscriptions that cursed anyone who dared to desecrate their image. It was almost a rite of passage for conquering rulers or representatives of new dynasties to try to eliminate loyalty to their predecessors through the erasure of visual reminders of their reign. In the 15th century B.C. the architectural legacy of Queen Hatshepsut, who ruled as regent for her stepson Thutmose III, was systematically dismantled by their successors Thutmose and Amenhotep II. According to Kara Cooney, in her book The Woman who would be King, “Thutmose III’s craftsmen were instructed in how best to annihilate these statues… so they could break the link between Hatshepsut and the kingship.” This program of rewriting claims to power included removing images of Hatshepsut from monuments, reliefs, statues, and cartouches as well as omitting her name from the official list of Egyptian rulers (including, of course, the one produced by Thutmose III himself).
Arguably the most well-known attempts to manipulate public memory are those of the ancient Romans. Government decrees known as damnatio memoriae would attempt to destroy visual depictions of emperors or public figures who were deemed unworthy of being part of the community: their names would be scratched out from inscriptions; their portraits reworked on frescos; and coins bearing their image would effaced.
For the Greeks and the Romans, being forgotten was a real risk. In Greek mythology, Achilles chooses between a long happy life of anonymity and a short glorious life that will lead to eternal renown. Being remembered was about immortality. As Harriet Flower has written, damnatio memoriae was the most severe punishment that the Roman legal system could impose upon a person, but it served a kind of positive role. It both eliminated the person from the Roman collective memory while simultaneously allowing that person’s family and everyone else to continue life as normal.
What’s interesting about all of these examples of monumental effacement is just how ineffective they were. Those who were sentenced to historical anonymity were important: generals, senators, and monarchs. The attempted erasure of their memory just draws attention to the absence—we can still see the places where the Emperor Domitian’s name was removed. We know about the removal of statues of Pompey, Nero, and Caligula. We know about these ancient figures despite the other powerful individuals and groups that tried to erase them. As Bond puts it, “destroying statues has always happened and we continue to know about these people in the historical record. Thus, it is not ‘destroying history’.”
These efforts took place in a period in which it was possible to imagine erasing someone’s name. It took place in a world in which public memorialization was limited to expensive monuments, coins, statues, seals, and texts. It was plausible that an emperor or the senate could eliminate all evidence of a person’s existence. If it proved difficult to erase history in the ancient world, then it is impossible to imagine that such things could happen in the present. On the contrary, the internet means that for most of us the far more pressing danger is that we will leave behind us a tangled, uncurated, and, frankly, embarrassing, mass of information that will speak volumes long after we die.
The impact and histories of Robert Lee and British slave trader Edward Colston will be preserved without symbolic statues that implicitly celebrate them for accomplishments that are, by definition, racist. The history of their actions will be retold not only because it is impossible to erase them, but also because it is imperative to remember them. It is trite to note the dangers of forgetting our histories, but absolutely no one is advocating for that. On the contrary, those removing their statues want us to improve our understand of the history of racism and scrutinize the conditions under which racism and slavery flourished. What is being negated is the prestige and honor that such statues bequeath on those who profited from and fought for the enslavement of others.
This is not to say that all public monuments that are deemed problematic by anyone at all should be destroyed. The destruction of sites of cultural heritage by ISIS is something that correctly shocked and horrified people. But, as Bond has noted, there’s also something freeing about destroying statues that symbolize oppression. Few spilled tears when US forces in Baghdad toppled the statue of Saddam Hussein in Firdos square. When the removal of a statue comes at the behest of an oppressed community it can do important work. In the case of the 2010 removal of Josef Stalin’s statue from his childhood home in Gori, Georgia, there was something cathartic about the quiet dismantling of his legacy there. At the time, Georgia’s culture minister noted that Stalin had created problems in Georgia that continued into the present. The removal of the statue was about healing those wounds.
Many of the statues currently being torn down are not relics of the incredibly short-lived Confederacy at all. Many of these statues were mass produced around the turn of the 20th century, when racist nostalgia wistfully looked back to this period. It’s worth asking if these are monuments to anything other than intractable racism. Do they celebrate a period in our history of which we should be ashamed or, even worse, have they always been symbols of the racist glorification of that period by white supremacists?