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: “remembrance,” “reflection,” “reconciliation,” and in some instances, “rededication.” Such ideas shouldn’t be limited to physical structures, she said, adding 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 that technology can, too, like the video documentations 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.” To Lou, monuments first and foremost are an expression of power. Whoever controls monuments, can control their meaning—“the most critical aspect in monument-making or monument-destruction,” he said.

Monuments can be used for control, Emmett Till Interpretive Center executive director Patrick Weems agreed, but in his work, he primarily thinks about monuments in terms of peacebuilding studies—“for reimagining past wounds and creating a narrative for moving forward.”

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

Illustration by Soobin Kim.

“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. In 2009, 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” that help communities engage in conversation around difficult subjects as a step in the right direction. On one hand, he said, we need to argue better. But on the other hand, there are guns. Take 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. What do we do about the silences?

“We’ve got to find ways to spread our messages,” said Weems. He spoke about how, at Emmett Till Interpretive Center, they’ve continued to amplify their messaging through a smartphone app and a traveling exhibit, “Let the World See,” which is currently on view here at the Two Mississippi.

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

“Until the lion learns to write its own story, the hunter will be the one who is glorified,”  said Chamberlain. She emphasized that “it’s important we make sure students understand the power of the pen on paper.” Message makers need to be inclusive, she added, 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 in the Two Mississippi Museums.”

Let’s start dreaming, said Sturkey: 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. Monuments that every student wanted to go to?

“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, circling back to Chamberlain’s earlier definition of monuments.

“How can we allow our young people to see themselves in the narrative in a positive way?” Chamberlain mused. One opportunity, she said, lies in teaching young people today about the “power and agency” demonstrated by the young people who gave momentum and life to the Civil Rights movement in Mississippi, decades ago.

“My highest hope is that we can 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. And we would find out we have a lot in common,” Weems said.

“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?” asked Lou, amplifying Weems’ point. If we listen only to the narratives broadcast from centers of power, he added, “we’re never going to be able to talk to each other.”

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

The program opened up for audience questions. One participant asked the group, “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?”

“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 is a labyrinth of sorts—one that captures the good, the bad, and the ugly—and that “includes 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.

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

The final question of the night asked the panelists to reflect on the most compelling monuments they’re seeing young people create 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 said she thinks of students at Tougaloo, both at the height of the Civil Rights Movement and today, who are “taking history into their own hands.”

And Lou spoke about watching his students at work, using art to make the invisible visible and to “amplify what it means to be a human being.” To him, he said, “that is a grand monument.”


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