How we memorialize things

David EideOpinions Columnist

How we memorialize our history has been especially relevant in recent years with the ongoing controversy surrounding the continued display of Confederate monuments in many southern states. My interest in this topic was spurred by a trip I took over spring break to several different state capitals, all of which featured statues on their grounds seeking to memorialize aspects of their history. This got me thinking more about the issue, and I’d like to share the conclusions that I eventually reached. I think how we remember our past is an important part of our society that we often don’t actually think about much in isolation.

First of all, I’d like to explain what I mean when I say, “how we remember history.” In this specific case, I don’t mean the literal recording of history in books or the like, but instead how we portray history using public and civic means. Some examples I would include in this definition are statues, public commemoration through holidays, and the naming of buildings or locations after historical events or figures. In effect, happening to look at a statue commemorating some historical figure or not going to work on a holiday celebrating an important event in the past are acts of remembrance, whether we think of them that way or not. 

Aspects of how we memorialize the past have come under intense – and rightfully deserved – criticism by those who say that they honor those who do not deserve to be honored. For instance, there are thousands of monuments across the South that honor traitorous slavers who sought to secede from the United States solely to preserve the monstrous institution of chattel slavery. Obviously, these are not the sorts of people who should be memorialized in the centers of our cities or in the holidays we celebrate. To address one common criticism of this stance, statues and other forms of memorialized history are not designed to teach history; they are specifically meant to memorialize and honor a certain aspect of history, often through a clear distortion of the actual history. In this case, I think that every statue or other form of a memorial honoring the Confederate States of America should be removed as quickly as possible from public life. 

However, there are some who take this otherwise excellent goal of getting rid of statues that are actively harmful to certain communities and extend it a bit too far. I have also seen the idea put forth that we should stop putting up commemorative monuments and other forms of memorializing history, since we cannot determine how they will be interpreted in the future and so we shouldn’t risk it. I disagree with these assertions. This might be a controversial statement at this point, but I think that statues of the founding fathers, even if they abhorrently practiced slavery, should remain up. My reasoning is that I think it’s fundamentally important for our society to have a shared sense of history from which people can draw a unified feeling of belonging from. I think a lot of our recent political polarization issues stem from the general unmooring of our identities, from us no longer viewing each other as part of the same whole, but as enemies. Of course, how we remember history is a small part of why this trend has been occurring, but the other reasons aren’t the focus of this piece. 

I also have another reason for wanting to continue to see memorials and monuments being built and this is one that is a bit more in the weeds. I have a bit of an interest in urbanism and the fields surrounding it, and I’ve come away with the impression that monuments and memorials are very important for the fabric of cities. Oftentimes, they serve as focal points which can turn public parks from simple spaces of green into places of public gathering and cultural activities. While pieces of abstract art can also serve this function somewhat well, I personally don’t like them as much, as I think they age poorly with changing artistic trends. I also feel that statues can bring to light and honor figures in a city or region’s history who may not have received much attention during their lives but still did good that deserves to be remembered. 

I think it’s important to cease the memorialization of actively harmful figures and events while still commemorating those that deserve it. I think in many cases, commemorations of our past can inspire us to work towards a better future. I know the situation is very complex.  However, I felt the need to at least add my voice to the growing discussion over how to remember the past, and I hope you choose to do so as well.

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