There’s Power—and Promise—in Talking About Monuments

Doing Better By Future Generations Starts With Breaking Today’s Culture of Silence

From left to right: William Sturkey, Daphne Chamberlain, Richard Lou, and Patrick Weems.

“I get the feeling some people don’t want this conversation to happen,” said historian William Sturkey during last night’s public program at Two Mississippi Museums in Jackson, Mississippi.

The framing question for the event was “What Kind of Monuments Do We Deserve?,” part of Zócalo’s two-year editorial and programming series entitled “How Should Societies Remember Their Sins?,” supported by the Mellon Foundation.

It’s no secret that monuments are everywhere, Sturkey, the series’ moderator, said. They’re on statues, street signs, building names. But despite their ubiquity, there is a culture of silence around them, with powerful economic and political measures in place, including emerging “divisive concepts” legislation, which tries to stop discussion about their purpose and meaning in society.

During the night, Zócalo’s panelists attempted to unpack that silence, breaking down what monuments are and can be, why they are so polarizing and divisive, and what the future of monuments in this country could look like.

“Let’s start by getting on equal footing,” Sturkey began. He addressed the panelists: What are monuments, and what do they mean for society?

Civil Rights historian Daphne Chamberlain shared the first words that came to mind around monuments: “remembrance,” “reflection,” “reconciliation,” and in some instances, “rededication.” Such ideas shouldn’t be limited to physical structures, she said, adding that she even thinks of people “being monumental” for their work, and the legacies they’ve left.

Visual and performance artist Richard Lou seconded the idea that people can be monuments, and pointed out that technology can be, as well, like video documentation of the beating of Rodney King, and of the Jan. 6 insurrection. Shown over, and over, he said, “they’ve become monumental in my mind.”

For Lou, monuments first and foremost serve as an expression of power. Whoever controls monuments can control their meaning—“the most critical aspect in monument-making or monument-destruction,” he said. The evening’s final panelist, Emmett Till Interpretive Center executive director Patrick Weems, however, said that he primarily thinks about monuments in terms of peacebuilding studies—“for reimagining past wounds and creating a narrative for moving forward.”

Illustration by Soobin Kim.

“Everyone in this room watching us knows this is an emotional and very politically charged conversation,” Sturkey said. But why, he asked the panelists, does that have to be the case?

“There’s a lot of anxiety around truth-telling,” said Chamberlain to a murmur of agreement from the audience. “When you talk about feelings getting involved and of course what those monuments mean to you personally or politically… it begins to fester and then it manifests itself in such a way that you begin to see the actions of people in places like Jan. 6.”

Lou shared an anecdote from 2009, when he wrote and directed a site-specific work about Confederate general and KKK founder Nathan Bedford Forrest. During a discussion after the performance, a woman spoke up and said Forrest had helped her ancestors in a difficult time. “She felt a very personal connection to Gen. Forrest,” said Lou. “But for people who have been marginalized, for people of color, it’s a negation of who we are, and who we strive to be.”

This is the conflict, Lou said. To the woman, “her worldview was wrecked, and if that worldview was removed, then how could she situation herself in regards to how she relates to everyday life?” The same was true for him. “My worldview exists in contrast and in opposition to what Nathan Bedford Forrest stood for.”

Weems pointed to initiatives like “The Welcome Table,” which helps communities engage in conversation around difficult subjects. We need to argue better, he said. But then there are guns. Take, for instance, the gunfire that desecrated placards put up to commemorate the murder of Emmett Till, the 14-year-old African American boy from Chicago who was brutally killed by white men in Mississippi in 1955. “Someone thought the way to debate whether that memorial should be there was to shoot it up,” he said.

This kind of silencing is part of an old playbook, Sturkey observed. How, he asked the panel,  can we respond to it effectively?

Weems spoke about how the Emmett Till Interpretive Center has continued to amplify its messaging across mediums, including creating a smartphone app and a traveling exhibit, “Let the World See,” which is currently on view upstairs at the Two Mississippi. “We’ve got to find ways to spread our messages,” he said.

Lou teaches at the University of Memphis in Tennessee, one of the states that have passed “divisive concepts” legislation, which, among other things, restricts what students can be taught about race. Debating better matters, Lou said, but if such trends continue, we won’t all have the same facts. “That knowledge would be subjugated,” he said, quoting bell hooks.

Chamberlain emphasized the importance of making sure that students “understand the power of the pen on paper.” She also spoke about how message makers need to be inclusive, and not silence “the histories of those of us sitting here on the stage, those of us sitting in this audience, and even spaces that reflect this history here,” Chamberlain said, gesturing around at the museum space.

Let’s start dreaming, Sturkey said: “What would our world look like—our region, our country, and Mississippi—if we had monuments that we don’t have to say, well, we can’t talk about the conflicts that they came from?”

“My dream would be to re-enfranchise and fully resource the human monuments that walk among us, so they could find their full potential in this country,” Lou said.

Chamberlain called for helping young people “see themselves in the narrative in a positive way.” One way to do this, she suggested, is teaching Mississippi students today about the “power and agency” demonstrated by young people decades ago who gave momentum and life to the Civil Rights movement in the state.

Weems said that his “highest hope” was to “get to a space where we have a democratic process where we are able to show up and trust leaders to listen to decisions made at a community level.” If this could happen, he said, “we would find out we have a lot in common.”

“If we listen only to the narratives broadcast from centers of power, we’re never going to be able to talk to each other,” said Lou. “How do we decentralize the narrative and localize it and provide opportunities where we can listen to each other and remind each other that we’re neighbors and not enemies and we have a commonality, and that’s our humanity?” he asked, amplifying Weems’ point.

“Perhaps we need monuments to educators, builders, people who raised families,” Sturkey said.

Before the conversation wrapped, the panel answered questions from the audience. “If you could look 10 years into the future, could you propose a new monument in Mississippi that doesn’t exist, and what message would you want it to tell?” one person asked.

“To me, there’s an easy answer to that,” said Sturkey. “In 1860, the enslaved people in this state outnumbered white people by 80,000. Everywhere you look, there are Confederate monuments. There’s virtually nothing that recognizes their existence. And it would be something big and important and says that they mattered.”

Chamberlain suggested a monument that was a labyrinth of sorts—one that captured the good, the bad, and the ugly—and that included “all of those voices that make up all these rich histories in the state that many of us were born and raised and loved.”

“I think there’s space for Black joy, for the Chinese American experience in the Delta. We need more stories, not less stories. Let’s flood our imagination with stories,” said Weems.

And Lou called for a statewide academy where high school students can learn strategies of resistance through storytelling, artmaking, journalism, or history.

The final audience question of the night asked the panelists to speak about the most compelling monuments they see young people creating today.

Weems gave a shout-out to Emmett Till Academy started by Gloria Dickerson, and the work they’re doing to create a Civil Rights tour in the Mississippi Delta.

Chamberlain talked about the students at Tougaloo, both at the height of the Civil Rights Movement, and today, who are “taking history into their own hands.”

Finally, Lou spoke about his own students who are using art to make the invisible visible and to “amplify what it means to be a human being.” That work, he said, “is a grand monument.”





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