So, We Might Need to Rename Everything: America’s Problem with Memorializing Racists

People in a park look at a graffiti-covered statue of Confederate general Robert E Lee on a horse.
A statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee in Richmond, Virginia. | Zach Gibson/Getty Images

In recent weeks, following the anti-racist protests of the past month, there has been a dramatic increase in people, companies and institutions working to distance themselves from racist legacies and figures of their pasts.

Commercial products have been renamed, some university buildings are undergoing name changes, and of course, we’ve seen the removal of confederate monuments, and statues of controversial historic figures like Christopher Columbus.

It’s not exactly the systemic change that activists have been demanding, but it’s not a bad thing either.

Critics of these changes have responded, “Well what’s next, you want to take down statues and monuments to Thomas Jefferson and George Washington, too? They owed slaves.” to which I respond, “Sure, why not?”

But the more that people ask those types of questions, the more I realize that the US does a LOT to honor people who happened to be racists and slave owners.

And it’s not just a Southern Confederate statue issue, it’s nationwide. From the controversies of Mt. Rushmore, to places bearing the names of brutal Spanish missionaries on the West Coast, racist figures of this country’s history are memorialized in seemingly every state.

Even my hometown Philadelphia had a statue(until 2 weeks ago) located across the street from our City Hall in the likeness of Frank Rizzo, the former mayor and police commissioner, who had a history of enforcing police brutality against Black and Brown communities, and even White hippies and members of the LGBTQ community in the 1960s and 1970s.

Going beyond monuments and statues, just think about how many cities and states in this country are named after people with racially violent pasts:

  1. Washington D.C.: Named after George Washington, military general, the first US President… and slave owner.

Even the name “America” itself is derived from the name of Amerigo Vespucci, an Italian explorer who was involved in a slave raid of over 200 indigenous people from what is now the Bahamas.

It looks like we might have a bit of a problem.

A common argument against the critiques of the actions of racist, yet beloved White historical figures is, “These were people of their time”, suggesting that they’re being unfairly judged by today’s standards and not being understood within their historical context.

Well what exactly is a person of one’s time?

Technically, isn’t everybody “of their time”?

Hitler was a “man of his time”. King Leopold II of Belgium was a “man of his time”.

J. Edgar Hoover was a “man of his time”.

People who do horrific things today are “of their time”. That doesn’t make their actions any less harmful, that doesn’t mean that we can’t critique them, and it damn sure doesn’t mean we need to laud these people as heroes in the 21st century.

Sure, many of the historic men in question were people of their time, but were there no decent, non-slave owning people who existed in the time of George Washington? Were there people in the South who weren’t violently racist and oppressive? Were there not people who believed in freedom and equality 300 years ago?

People on the right side of history have definitely existed, but where are their statues?

Where are the cities and states named after abolitionists, people who helped the poor and people who fought for equality? Why are they not lionized in the way that America honors the likes of Columbus, Washington and Jefferson?

It’s because the power structure of the US is dependent on systemic racial violence. The wealth, power and privilege of the United States would not exist without slavery, exploitation and, as Ta-Nehisi Coates refers to it, “American plunder”. These forms of violence and the historical figures who commit these acts aren’t small slip-ups in an otherwise spotless history, they set the foundation for the American story.

The goal in changing these names and removing these statues, however, should not be to erase or to ignore these ugly parts of our history, but to challenge us to do better, be better to each other and re-imagine the world in ways in which systemic violence isn’t honored, nor is it normalized.

Robert E. Lee is not the best this country can do. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson where not the best this country could do.

Today, in 2020, we have a chance to write the rest of this American story in a way that won’t make people ashamed in 300 years.

The question is what part of this story will we choose to write?

Philadelphia, born & raised. Writer, reader, part-time runner. Edinboro University, Class of 2011. Bylines: The Philadelphia Inquirer, Blavity, Philly Tribune.

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