Rudyard Kipling’s late nineteenth century poem (“Recessional”) made reference to times of war, losses, and sacrifice. The most noted phrase of the poem, lest we forget, implored us to remember the consequences of past triumphs and actions, to both honor and mourn. I would like to use this phrase, here, solely from a research perspective. I encourage you to consider merely this one, narrow aspect of lest we forget, temporarily putting aside politics, race, and history, to entertain an additional potential factor about the removal of statues, film, and books from the American awareness.
I am not an historian, theorist, or politician. I am a psychologist who works with individual clients after having retired from an academic position with an urban university. One of the academic roles I most enjoyed was participating with students in the completion of their doctoral dissertations. I learned from the doctoral candidates the value of exhausting the already published research data to inform their own summary conclusions. Many candidates would obsess over identifying absolutely every possible source and including each in their review of literature. I remember many dissertation meetings where committee members would bring a candidate to tears because they had not included that member’s favorite theoretician in their literature review. Through that lens, the term lest we forget, forces me to obsess about the valuable data and information we lose with each statue, book, and film that disappears.
Again, please forgo politics and race (as impossible as that sounds), when considering statues, books, film, and the like, as valuable data or artifacts, or sources of information. I realize that in asking you to overlook race I risk being stereotyped as a racist, or “color blind,” or biased. Yet, my encouragement to consider artifacts and data is framed in the practice of exhausting the available data. There could be reasons that Black Americans may find it useful to preserve the data about Robert E. Lee, or Gone with the Wind, for example. In a June 2020 New York Times article/interview by Jonah Engel Bromwich with art historian Erin Thompson, she stated, “…protesters are attacking symbols of a hateful past as part of fighting for a peaceful future…. So if people lose hope in the possibility of a peaceful resolution, they’re going to find other means.” Yet, removing the evidence, the data, that there has been a “hateful past,” we sacrifice the proof, the information that brought this country to this point in history. The case for peace, the reasons for protests, are lost forever.
The title of a June 7, 2020, Washington Post article about the removal of the Robert E. Lee Statue in Virginia stated, “Take Down his Statue and Let his Cause be Lost.” And this is exactly my point. Later, the author, Robert W. Lee, IV, wrote, “The statue is a hollow reminder of a painful ideology and acts of oppression against black people. Taking it down will provide new opportunities for conversations, relationships and policy change.” I suggest, in contrary, that without the evidence or the data, without the historical context and the proof of “painful ideology and acts of oppression,” the called-for conversations lose the sources needed to justify policy change. Lest we forget.
And what about Gone With the Wind, a film that won ten Academy Awards in 1940, was one of the first use of TechniColor, which dramatically depicts the look of the South in each of the key historical periods: antebellum, postbellum, and reconstruction? The film is a depiction of change, not only the change of a naïve Southern belle to a resourceful, successful businesswoman, but also a depiction of the change experienced by the entire nation. The film contains the data and documentation of one filmmaker’s view of that change, but it therefore also demonstrates that change can actually happen. From the research lens, we could all wonder why, at this time in our history, the film’s data and evidence has been deleted from streaming services. Gone With the Wind documents without glorifying slavery, classism, privilege, racism, and gender inequities. Why would any of us want the data and evidence to disappear from our consciousness? Lest we forget.
Granted, the research lens of data, documentation, artifact is limited. I wonder, though, how many generations will it take before Americans ask “who was Robert E. Lee?” and “What was Gone With the Wind even about?” We have to ask: what important information are we sacrificing, for either side of a political debate, when we destroy the evidence? We lose the chance to learn, and we also lose the opportunity to form our own opinion, when the data are incomplete, missing, or biased.
Friday, June 19, 2020, Juneteenth—a day that marked the anniversary of the end of slavery in the U.S.—was “celebrated” by an angry fringe pulling down and defacing a statue of George Washington with the phrase “Destroy the Racist.” By destroying a commemoration of contributions of the first U.S. president, we lose a great deal of data, evidence, proof, objective information about a past we may not want to completely forget, including that he owned slaves.
The following (and incomplete) list of Juneteenth defaced and toppled statues is long, but each deserves being noted:
- San Francisco, CA: Junipero Serra (Spanish priest – “Stolen Land” now written on remaining base), Francis Scott Key (lyricist of Star Spangled Banner – now reads “Slave Owner” and ”Stolen Land and Stolen People”), President Ulysses S Grant (general of the Union army that ended slavery in the United States – “Adios America”), and a statue of Don Quixote and the author who created him, Miquel de Cervantes.
- San Pedro, CA: Juan Rodriquez Cabillo (conquistador, is now painted as “colonizer”), Senator Mallory White.
- New London, CT; Columbus, OH; Houston, TX; Boston, MA: Christopher Columbus (in Houston, the statue was defaced with “Rip the Head from your Oppressor”).
- Miami, FL: Juan Ponce de Leon (defaced on June 17, 2020)
- Dexter, MI: La Raza sculpture (Spanish word for Race or community, repainted sculpture figures are now black, yellow, and brown, red).
- Albuquerque, NM: Juan de Onate (conquistador, now in red paint “racist murderer”).
- Raleigh, NC: Two confederate soldiers (one honoring the first NC soldier who died during the Civil War, the other dedicated to the women of the Confederacy – these statues were dragged down the street and one hanged from a light post in a mock lynching).
- Rochester, NY: Nathaniel Rochester (defaced statue of city founder painted with “shame,” on his forehead, “stole indigenous lands” and “abolish the police”).
- Portland, OR: George Washington (painted with “You are on Native land,” draped in a burning American flag, and torn down), Thomas Jefferson (author of the Declaration of Independence).
- Austin, TX: Three statues of Confederate leaders on the University of Texas campus (vandalized with “Black Lives Matter” and “bump all the chumps”).
- U.S. House of Representatives: removed portraits of four former House Speakers who served with the Confederacy (at the order of Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi).
- Richmond VA: Robert E. Lee (Confederate general), Arthur Ashe (American tennis champion – defaced with “White Lives Matter” then painted over with “Black Lives Matter”)
- Washington, DC: Albert Pike (Confederate General, toppled and burned), George Preston Marshall (First NFL owner of Washington Redskins – painted with “change the name”).
Lest we forget.
I would be remiss if I recommend not destroying data without the mention of alternatives. Maybe some of these statues should come down in the end, but not this way. Maybe Confederate statues could be replaced with something that maintains the historic data and meaning, while not honoring the memory of something like slavery. If that’s the case, the process and content should be decided through the appropriate channels, not by vandals. The removal of every statute, film, picture, or account could be subjected to American democratic and civic processes. Rather than destroying our historic data, could the artifacts be turned into opportunities for conversion, dialogue, and education? For example, a statue of a Confederate general could remain while plaques are installed that offer the history lesson documenting both contribution and comment from multiple and diverse perspectives. The vandals may be reenacting the very process of which they object—the presentation of one view, one perspective, one voice, without including the diverse voices of this nation. Such an alternative could provide the “new opportunities for conversations, relationships and policy change” called for by Robert W. Lee, IV.
As the evidence for injustices exit our country, we are left with emotions that hinder communication and understanding. The opportunity is lost to stand beneath a statue representing the actions and principles of our past and to acknowledge the need for continued growth and change in our future. I implore us all to not deplete the data and proof. We must not lose the reminder—lest we forget. We must not want to forget because we do not want to repeat the errors of our past.
The Vietnam War protesters of the 1960s were told to “sit down!” I choose to not sit down and watch our artifacts painted over without acknowledging the importance of remembering the whole story of our history. Lest we forget why and for what we stand.