Where is the Line with the Statues

(A statue to George Washington in Baltimore was defaced with red paint over the weekend-the memorial in Druid Hill Park also had the words ‘Destroy Racists’ and the initials for the Black Lives Matter movement written on the base.

The concept of tearing down statues that represent fallen ideals as societies advance new principles is nothing new. During the American Revolution a statue of King George III was toppled and statutes of Lenin and Stalin have been removed en masse all over Eastern Europe as pro-Western contingencies have risen to power. The United States is no exception as confederate statues have begun to be removed in larger numbers all over the country.

Alexander Stephens, the Confederacy’s vice president, gave a “Cornerstone Speech” in Savannah, Georgia, March 21, 1861. In it, he declared that the Confederacy rested on the “great truth” that the white man was superior. The ideals of the Declaration of Independence, written nearly 100 years earlier, are what America was built upon and the South lost the war, so any false concept later perpetuated by the Confederacy should have been over. The premise that all men are created equal is the foundation of the United States of America. Many can easily reconcile the removal of Confederate statues based on that dichotomy alone — it is not a complex proposition for most.

My law school used to display a bill of sale for a slave in the law library — they hung it on the walls, framed in a prominent location as if it were something to be proud of, as if it were art. The first time I saw that document, it was like a visceral punch to the gut and I was disgusted and I told that to anyone who would listen. The response was always the same; “That is a piece of history.”

The next year we had a new, brilliant young professor move to Oklahoma and I idolized her. She was black and I thought all the time about what seeing that grotesque certificate must have done to her and it made me sick — as if I had displayed it in my own home and then invited her over. It was true, that was a piece of history, and belonged in a museum, not proudly displayed in a supposed place of higher learning.

But, what happens when we cast a vast net over what now qualifies as an image we should be outraged by and how do we move forward in America with this new lust for statue blood. When so many people who built this country used slavery to advance their own personal wealth and our country’s collective wealth, how do we pick and choose?

Michelle Obama gave a speech at the Democratic National Convention in 2016 where she discussed watching her daughters play on the White House lawn. (She also spoke about how electing Hillary Clinton would finally let her daughters know they could really be anything they wanted, but that’s another article.) The former First Lady knows the complete history of how the White House was built with slave labor, but I’m pretty sure she would never advocate for tearing down the White House as reparations for slavery.

This week, statues of George Washington and Ulysses S. Grant were defaced and torn down as the outrage over equal rights continued, following the murder of George Floyd by a police officer in Minneapolis. George Washington owned slaves as everyone with wealth did during his time, but he was also responsible for winning the Revolutionary War and freeing the country from England’s rule. He also helped to create and lead a nation dedicated to ideals that would not ultimately be compatible with slavery, therefore making its eradication inevitable. 

Ulysses S. Grant led the Union to destroy the Confederacy with a military record that is hard to best. He tried to extend the sentiment behind the Civil War during his presidency as he focused on presiding over the Reconstruction of the South and this mission was abandoned when he left office. His statue was removed by protesters this week in San Francisco because Grant was gifted a slave that he later freed before the war.

My question to you is where do we draw the line? Have we crossed a line? If we continue to tear down every statue of every American figure because they owned slaves in a time when everyone owned slaves, where are we headed? Nearly every Founding Father owned slaves-are we headed toward canceling America entirely? Is there a clear line of what is acceptable and what is not? Who stays and who goes?

Tell me what you think in the comments below.

Amee Vanderpool writes the “Shero” Newsletter and is an attorney, contributor to magazines and newspapers and analyst for BBC radio. She can be reached at avanderpool@gmail.com or follow her on Twitter @girlsreallyrule.

Posts like this are made possible by paid subscriptions from readers like you, which allow me to keep writing critical news for the public like this. By getting a paid subscription to SHERO, you will be getting exclusive content not available to everyone while supporting independent journalism for everyone. Please consider getting your paid subscription today.