For years, whenever I was in New Orleans, I used to run past an equestrian statue just outside the voluptuously green City Park. Though it is situated at a major intersection, where Esplanade Avenue meets Wisner Boulevard, the statue itself is unremarkable, the usual muscular horse and male rider. It celebrates Pierre Gustave Toutant Beauregard, the general whose assault on Fort Sumter in April 1861 launched the Civil War. Beneath the horse’s raised foreleg, a plaque commemorates the four years that Beauregard served in the Confederate Army; it says nothing about his decades in the U.S. Army. A few miles to the south, at the center of Lee Circle, Beauregard’s Confederate commander and fellow slaveholder Robert E. Lee looms atop a sixty-foot marble column, his arms crossed, a sword at his side. Lee is too high up to be clearly seen, as though purposefully placed out of the reach of anyone who might question why he is there.
Monuments to the South’s Confederate past are not hard to find in New Orleans. On the banks of the Mississippi, a white obelisk pays tribute to the 1874 Battle of Liberty Place, a bloody attempt by a racist paramilitary group called the Crescent City White League to overthrow the Reconstructionist Louisiana government. The administration, which had both black and white members, was defended by a black militia as well as by New Orleans police. During the skirmishes, the White League militants used streetcars as barricades and hid behind bales of cotton. A few dozen people died, including eleven policemen. The insurrection was quashed, but its goal of ending Reconstruction was realized within two years, when the presidential election of 1876 rolled back the reforms of the previous decade and disenfranchised black voters. In 1932, an inscription was added to the monument that praised the overthrow of the “carpetbag government.” the national election, the inscription reads, recognized white supremacy in the south and gave us our state.
“Us,” of course, refers to white people. The history books insist that the North won the war, but in the South it’s hard to find the evidence. If the North had won the war, there would not be statues and street names honoring the defeated leaders. If the North had won the war, our monuments would be to the suffering of slaves and their struggle to be free. If the North had won the war, the Confederate flag would be a symbol of shameful beliefs and military defeat, seen only in museums. If the North had won the war, the war would be over. Or so I thought, coming to the South as an adult unaccustomed to encountering that flag and those monuments as an ordinary part of the civic landscape. And so I thought on November 9, when the United States elected a president who is a successor not to Barack Obama but to Jefferson Davis, who embodies division, who preaches a gospel of white supremacy in a country inexorably evolving toward a non-white majority. George Bush may have been dissembling when he campaigned as a “uniter”; perhaps the only honest thing about Donald Trump’s overwhelmingly mendacious campaign was his promise to be a divider. If the Civil War was a struggle over who was entitled to human rights and human freedoms — a struggle over who counts as “we the people” — our future president casts us directly back into that battle.
In the West, where I currently live, we have our own unfinished wars: the Indian wars. I was reminded of how unfinished they are this fall, when I attended a demonstration led by Native Americans against the Dakota Access Pipeline. The protest took place in front of the statehouse in Bismarck, North Dakota, where on the building’s vast greensward there is a memorial to pioneers. The gray, cast-metal statue depicts a family: a patriarch, his shirt unbuttoned, poised for action; a matriarch, babe in her arms, leaning into her husband; and their strapping son. This is a military monument, despite its domestic subject, one of the many across the West that commemorate the invaders of these lands as heroes and, more than that, as us, while insisting that Native Americans are them.
That the hundred or more young Native people in that crowd in Bismarck had to face a symbol of their status as the enemy seemed as threatening, in its way, as the long line of heavily armed cops who were there. It was impossible not to think of the U.S. government’s military campaigns against the Lakota and Dakota a century and a half ago, which made some — eventually most — of the tribal territory available for white settlement and, of course, for exploitation. Part of the goal was to secure mineral resources. The Indian wars were frequently resource wars; today’s are, too. North Dakota, like Louisiana and Alberta, has become hostage to oil interests, and the state seems to have declared a new war on its original inhabitants, treating as violent aggressors people who have declared peace and prayer as their tactics. When I visited the Standing Rock reservation, multiple roadblocks stopped people from getting near the activist camps. I was told by government security officers that they were turning people back for their own safety.
Plenty of statues in the West depict men who killed and dispossessed indigenous people. Many of the men, including John C. Frémont and Kit Carson, have lent their names to streets and towns as well. Carson led a scorched-earth campaign against the Navajo in 1863, the year before General Sherman’s campaign against the South; a Nevada river was named in his honor, as was the state capital. But most of the memorials depict what followed the initial invasion and conflict: white settlement. In San Francisco, a pioneer mother with her children overlooks a running path in Golden Gate Park; near City Hall towers another, bigger monument, with several groups of bronze figures, including one that shows a Spanish priest and a vaquero standing over a cringing Native American man. They’re supposed to be “civilizing” him, but they look more like cops roughing up a suspect.
A city is a book we read by wandering its streets, a text that favors one version of history and suppresses others, enlarges your identity or reduces it, makes you feel important or disposable depending on who you are and what you are. When I called Maurice Ruffin, a writer and lawyer who lives in New Orleans, to discuss his city’s Confederate monuments, he told me, “The statues — a lot of them physically beautiful — argue that if you’re white, you’re human, and if you’re not, you’re not.” He’s not.
Who is remembered, and how? Who decides? These are political questions. “Who controls the past,” George Orwell wrote in 1984, “controls the future.” Those in the United States trying to shape the future know this, as well as the rest of Orwell’s admonition: “Who controls the present controls the past.” We are not who we once were — “we” meaning the citizens of a country whose non-white population has grown, in numbers and in visibility and in power, but remains marginalized in countless ways. Racism is so embedded that if we were to cease honoring slaveholders, we would have to rename cities and counties; sexism is so deeply entrenched that the great women of history are largely missing from our streets and squares. What is to be done with a landscape whose features carry the legacy of violence? Do we tear down what’s already standing? Do we work toward parity by erecting new buildings, new monuments? Do we recontextualize or reclaim what is already there?
A quarter century ago, in Birmingham, Alabama, a series of sculptures were erected to commemorate the civil-rights movement. The most startling, by the artist James Drake, flanks a pedestrian path in a city park. From a wall on one side and the ground on the other, snarling bronze and steel dogs lunge as if to tear apart any passersby. The sculpture suggests that to understand the violence people once met here, we need to experience at least a shadow of that violence ourselves. It’s a rare thing, an official memorial to institutional savagery on the site where it transpired.
History, unlike physics, does not have an equal and opposite reaction for every action, but sometimes it has a curious way of advancing. In June 2015, nine black people were killed inside the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, a city where the Confederate flag is frequently displayed. The bloodbath, which was intended to be the opening salvo of a race war, had the opposite symbolic effect: it forced people to confront the flag’s association with racist violence.
The standard defense of the flag is that it is an emblem of history, but its display in South Carolina doesn’t date back to the nineteenth century: it first flew over the statehouse in 1961, ostensibly resurrected to mark the centennial of the Civil War but really as a symbol of opposition to integration. After the Charleston massacre, the activist Bree Newsome scaled a flagpole at the capitol to take it down; she was arrested. A month later, in a milestone marking the road away from Jim Crow, legislators finally ordered it taken down for good.
Across the South, public memory has been shifting — or at least expanding — to acknowledge previously overlooked facets of history. Last October, the town of Abbeville, South Carolina, unveiled a monument to a man named Anthony Crawford, a century after a mob beat, tortured, shot, and hanged him for arguing with a white man over the price of his crops. In Montgomery, Alabama, the Equal Justice Initiative is building a memorial to the more than 4,000 black victims of lynching. The city also houses a Rosa Parks Museum.
Many of these advances meet ferocious resistance. In New Orleans, when the obelisk honoring the Crescent City White League was removed, in 1989, from its prime location at the foot of Canal Street, a follower of David Duke, the Ku Klux Klan grand wizard, led a successful lawsuit to make sure that the landmark at which so many Klan marches had originated remained present and visible in the city. In 1993, it was installed in a less conspicuous location a block away.
So far, all efforts to remove New Orleans’s statues have been stymied. In 2014, jazz musician Wynton Marsalis asked Mitch Landrieu, the city’s white mayor, to look at the towering statue of General Lee:
Let me help you see it through my eyes. Who is he? What does he represent? And in that most prominent space in the city of New Orleans, does that space reflect who we were, who we want to be, or who we are?
A year later, the mayor proposed that the city take down the statue, along with others that commemorated the Confederate cause. Then city employees were threatened, and the contractor who accepted the job of removing the statues received death threats and withdrew.
Residents’ frustrations over the delay have erupted periodically into outright conflict. Last September, Take ’Em Down NOLA, an activist group led by African Americans, began protesting the statue of Andrew Jackson that sits in the heart of the French Quarter. Jackson fought against Native Americans, owned and traded slaves, and signed the Indian Removal Act of 1830, which dispossessed the Cherokee, Choctaw, Seminole, and other southeastern tribes of their lands. The several hundred demonstrators who poured into Jackson Square found that the statue had been placed behind barricades and was being protected by police. Meanwhile, a counterprotest sought to obstruct the activists. When Duke himself showed up at Jackson Square, a quarrel broke out, and in the scuffle police arrested seven people, including the gray-haired woman who had wrested Duke’s megaphone out of his hands.
The statue remained standing, but Duke’s followers seemed worried that it was doomed. On Duke’s website, a commenter wrote, “To the victor go the spoils — and the ability to humiliate the vanquished. One of the most iconic ways is to destroy the statues and monuments of the defeated side.” He has a point. If you want to see defeat, Berlin might be the best place to look. The city has repudiated its role in the Third Reich with a formidable array of museums, statues, memorials, and other urban aide-mémoire. After any true conquest, a city’s landscape changes to reflect the values of the victors. In New Orleans, in the places where these monuments still stand, so does the Confederacy.
Yet artists and activists are making interventions into public space all over the country, some of them elaborate, some more ad hoc. The insult of the pioneer monument in Bismarck was temporarily solved by draping it with a bedsheet painted protect our mother. In New Orleans, the Jefferson Davis monument was tagged slave owner to draw attention to what was left off the plaque. On Memorial Day in 2015, John Sims, a conceptual artist, organized burnings and burials of the Confederate flag in thirteen Southern states. “The Confederate flag is the n-word on a pole,” he said. One of the burials took place at Lee Circle.
In periods when progressives don’t hold federal power, the work of rights and racial justice is largely relegated to the state and local levels. In the Trump era, this change of focus becomes imperative — if we advance at all, it will be through actions taken in our own communities, on city councils and in neighborhood assemblies and on the streets. The fight is perhaps most powerful, most poignant, when the guerrilla revisionists wage it. To mark the four-hundredth anniversary of the 1598 arrival of Juan de Oñate, a Spanish colonial governor, a statue was erected north of Santa Fe, New Mexico. In that part of the country, the Native American pueblos are strung like beads along the silver thread of the Rio Grande. Native memory is long, and Oñate had not been forgiven for chopping off the right feet of the Acoma Pueblo men who rose against him. So one night, several years after its installment, the statue’s booted, spurred foot was severed from its leg. In a letter to the editor of the Albuquerque Journal, a person who claimed involvement wrote, “If you must speak of his expedition, speak the truth in all its entirety.”
What is the whole truth? How do we reach it? In the monument wars, as we excavate our history like an archaeological site — or a crime scene — we have a chance to arrive at new conclusions, nominate new heroes, rethink the past, and reorient ourselves to the future. Some classes of people are educated, others rebuked. On occasion, the public dialogue produces something tangible. In Lower Manhattan, a grand statue of George Washington, yet another slaveholder, stands guard over Federal Hall, as it has since 1882. But a few blocks away, in a small counterpoint to the master narrative, a recently installed sign remembers Wall Street’s eighteenth-century slave market. The playing field is level, shout the men on the mountaintop to the people below. From the abyss, the people shout back in disagreement.
This country will soon be led by a man so in love with his own name and image that he has turned himself into a brand, a man whose self-memorialization perhaps began in the mold of Hilton but more and more resembles that of Stalin or Perón. Branding is the relentless pursuit of a single identity, a single story; it opposes the multiplicity and strife that inevitably characterize any effort of collective memory. Trump’s disgraceful genius has been to supply his followers with a simple — a false — account of history, to inflame their nostalgia for an imagined antiquity so as to invite its triumphant return.
White nationalists will be empowered by Trump’s victory to keep rewriting in this mold, or to erase our revisions. Their falsifications are best resisted not with the substitution of one simple story for another but with the addition of contradictory details, complicating facts. It would be impossible and unwise to erase all signs of the ugliness of this country’s past; success would be a landscape lobotomy. And just as we can’t forget that our statuary reinforces the exclusions and insults of the present, so should we remember that our emerging perspective is hardly the final realization of inclusion or equality. Posterity will alter or undo our contributions and curse us for crimes we have not yet comprehended. Statues stand still; the culture moves past them.
Not long after Trump’s campaign began, papier-mâché piñatas made in his likeness started to proliferate. Piñatas are ephemeral sculptures, designed to be smashed; and smashed they have been, repeatedly, passionately, these transient monuments to the outrage so many citizens of this country feel about their denigration at Donald Trump’s hands. Such acts testify to people’s ability to make — and break — their own monuments, to write their own history under the most repressive conditions. On election night, the piñatas were burned.