Smashing Statues

As readers of this blog know, I’m a sucker for an alliterative title and Erin Thompson’s Smashing Statues: the Rise and Fall of Americas Public Monuments (2022) is spectacular and as Joe Tessitor is known to say “wildly entertaining.”  

Thompson’s book explores the stories associated with erecting of statues honoring US Presidents, Confederate generals and soldiers, and Christopher Columbus  in the early 20th century and trying to have similar statues removed in the 21st century. The goal of the book was to tell new stories about many of the statues, their construction, and the movements associated with their removal and by changing the context, encourage us to reconsider what these statues represent. Thompson is a brilliant story-teller and this alone makes the book worth reading. Her ability to weave compelling counter narratives around such well known monuments as Georgia’ Stone Mountain and to humanize the removal of St. Paul’s Columbus statue and the political and legal wrangling associated with efforts to remove Birmingham’s Confederate memorial push the reader to expand how they understand these monuments and their place in our society. This is good and important work, even if, in some cases, it is preaching to the choir.

Stone Mountain was a complex pyramid scheme designed to support the lavish lifestyle of its spendthrift sculpture and various grifters associated with the revival of the Klan. The statues of Confederate soldiers at parade rest sought to enforce obedience among working class whites at the moment they were finding common cause with working class southern Blacks. Sowing racial division benefited the early-20th century Southern elite who profited from low wages by undermining efforts to unionize Black and white workers. As always in the US, race and class (as well as gender, which remained relatively unexplored, but not ignored, in Thompson’s book) requires intersectional analysis to reveal the complex histories that inform (and undercut) contemporary racial attitudes.  

Of particular note is Thompson’s discussion of the legal challenges associated with the removal of statues. She argues that part of the reason protestors have turned to unsanctioned methods for removing statues is the lack of clear legal or administrative routes to request, demand, or compelling their removal. Even in communities where the popular will clearly rejects monuments, such as Birmingham where a majority Black city has long felt monuments to the Confederacy painful and unwelcome, sustained state-level legislative and legal actions made it nearly impossible for the community to request their removal.

Thompson’s work likewise engages the somewhat facile argument that by removing statues we’ll be erasing history. She acknowledged that the past clings to statues in ways that is exceedingly difficult to remove and that monuments and statues have the capacity to move people in ways that texts, stories, and interpretative markers do not. That said, Thompson’s book is testimony to her faith that new stories about these monuments can transform out attitudes toward them. Removing the statues or even just debates about removing these statues force us to confront not only their power and legacy, but the situations that led to their construction and protection. In the end, these stories preserved in books, taught in schools, and commemorated in landscapes where monuments are preserved, reinterpreted and made conspicuous by their absence is the history that will remain. 

The only thing that I would add to the superficial pseudo-review was that I was particularly intrigued by the periodic windows into the monument’s urban settings. Birmingham, for example, is a majority Black city. This is a feature that it shares with Richmond, Virginia, another site of highly visible contested monuments. Last year, as I tried to finish my book on archaeology of the contemporary American experience, I speculated on how the changing demographics of American cities transformed perspectives on the urban landscape. Monuments originally set up to mark out priorities held by white elite urban dwellers who sought to occupy the ceremonial space of cities now stand amid very different communities with very different priorities, ethnic make ups, and histories. Despite this change, as Thompson argues well, it is exceedingly difficult to transform the monumental space of cities. Not only are new public works hard to finance, difficult to negotiate, and politically fraught, but it is also almost impossible to remove existing monuments In effect, the monumental core of certain cities has become ossified. The departure of many of the communities who set up these monuments into the suburbs not only emphasizes the intrusive nature of these features in the urban landscape, but also encourages a view of the city itself into museums of their past residents alienating the contemporary community who are consigned to live amid its ghosts.

More troubling still is that fact that white elites and middle class residents, when they decamped to the suburbs, rarely troubled with putting up new monuments in these new spaces. It’s almost as if the now-departed city took on the memorial function for these communities as well as the expenses of maintaining these monuments, preserving them, and dealing with the consequences of their presence. I also wonder whether this allowed for a certain amount of moral distancing as well. This distant, urban, and, by definition, “past” stands at safe remove from the daily activities of suburban and exurban denizens who nevertheless rarely support the removal of these monuments while confining their own commemorative landscape to parking lots, shopping centers, and green spaces.

The stories Thompson tells about these monuments are important and not only have to bridge the racial, social, and economic gap between white and Black and rich and poor, but also spatial gap between the perceptions of the city held by urban and non-urban dwellers. 

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