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The Haunting Past

November 29, 2017

Traveling cross-country over the last two months, I've had the opportunity to traverse bits and pieces of numerous important byways of the past – the Oregon and Santa Fe trails, the Trail of Tears, the Lincoln Highway, Route 66, Highway 80 from Selma to Montgomery. At each point and many others I was struck by the markers, some large and some small, that called out and shed light on these important causeways of history.


And these intersections got me thinking, sometimes asking, about the present appetite to remove monuments that have been placed in remembrance of history's actors whom we can now regard as deeply flawed – both the actor and those who would perpetuate their memory and the ideas for which they stood.


I'm not settled on the issue. While I find testaments to bigotry installed before institutions established to protect freedom revolting and indefensible, I understand that their wholesale removal often eliminates a different narrative from the identities and minds of others. While southern Civil War memorials read like an impulse to preserve a detestable and indefensible economic organization and way of life to me, I understand how it is an anchor that moors multigenerational communities in an ever-rising sea of history. As someone unattached to flags and exuberant displays of federated circumstance, I have a modest appreciation of the emotions an abolition of one's symbolic language might incite.


In Texas I saw the Lone Star flying most often with the Stars and Stripes. In Decatur, Mississippi I saw a confederate war monument that had been moved away from the county court house. Colorado, Arizona and Kansas have a rebirth of pride for new "brands" projected as flags. More often than not, it seemed to me these representations were negotiated and managed locally and without rousing incident.


What I find of equal interest, especially in a north that still entertains a whiff of superior air for its accomplishments in the Civil War, is the detestable history that we keep hidden from ourselves. By keeping our worst capabilities hidden, do we lure ourselves into a false righteousness?


That is at least in part the question raised by the brilliantly cited work of sculptor Titus Kaphar, titled "Impressions of Liberty."


The product of an introspective effort on the part of Princeton University to confront its origins and benefits from the slave economy of the 18th century, "Impressions of Liberty" is part of the artist's continuing "Monumental Inversions" series, which more or less works to draw attention to forgotten – or shall we say, pushed aside – histories.


In a way, I believe that a healthy democracy is able to accommodate both impulses – to commemorate and to question. What does seem true is that monuments must be cared for; as the adherents of ideas that give life to a monument fade away, so will those constructions of stone, concrete and bronze fall into the ground; they are eventually consumed by the weight of their failure to capture the hearts and imaginations of all people of a free and open society. Time will tell.

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