Who owns the public space, and who should be represented within it — and how? The questions have relevance within and beyond America’s borders, and they are at the forefront of movements to remove or rebrand monuments and public art that commemorate historical figures associated with slavery, colonialism, and racism.
On Wednesday, Ana Lucia Araujo, professor of history at Howard University, and Mame-Fatou iang, associate professor of French and francophone studies at Carnegie Mellon University, discussed both the history and the way forward during “Race and Remembrance in Contemporary Europe,” presented by the Minda de Gunzburg Center for European Studies (CES).
Introducing the Zoom discussion as a reassessment of “monuments and memorialization in Europe,” Mary D. Lewis, Robert Walton Goelet Professor of French History and CES resident faculty, described ongoing and international turbulence as activists seek to present a more complete picture of their countries’ history. “Silencing is an active process,” said Lewis, referencing the Haitian anthropologist Michel-Rolph Trouillot.
The past summer’s Black Lives Matter demonstrations in the U.S. inspired activists around the world, the scholars said. In the United Kingdom, protesters tore down a statue of the slave trader Edward Colston and tossed it in Bristol harbor. In the U.S., activists have taken down similar monuments or transformed them, such as by projecting images of Rep. John Lewis, Martin Luther King Jr., Harriet Tubman, and W.E.B. Du Bois on a statue of Robert E. Lee in Richmond, Va. Around the world, activists and protesters are pushing for reassessment and removal of such problematic pieces.
Removing public art that has outlived its political relevance is nothing new, Araujo said. During the American Revolution, statues of England’s king were torn down, and monuments in former Eastern Bloc countries were toppled as the Communist regime crumbled. Statues of people who ruled or grew rich by exploiting Black lives, however, are harder to fell, and their continued survival supports and perpetuates bias and national myths. Commemorating such people in public spaces engages and encourages white supremacists, said Araujo, whose most recent book is “Slavery in the Age of Memory Engaging the Past.” She said artwork celebrating slavers ties in with “the ways white supremacy denies racism.”
Statues of prominent slave traders or slave holders did not begin to acknowledge the roots of their riches or power until the 1990s, Araujo said. Public art that decried slavery tended to focus on white abolitionists, rather than enslaved individuals and their descendants. “The public memory of slavery remains a contested battlefield,” she said.
In France, said Niang, the battle is particularly heated, as discussions of slavery and colonialism are often taken as an attack on the country. Slavery, for example, is taught as a foreign evil, focusing on countries like Brazil and the U.S., while the domestic focus is kept on abolition. As for its monuments, President Emmanuel Macron has said that France will “erase no trace or names of its history, it will forget none of its works, it will tear down none of its statues.”
Following the recent beheading of teacher Samuel Paty by a teenage Islamist extremist, this stance has hardened. The murder was seen as a direct assault on France and Republican values such as laïcité (secularism) and freedom of speech. Since Paty’s death, questioning the Republic has risked being interpreted as condoning terrorism.