“Art, however, can heal. Art can speak to the logic of our dreams and touch the emotive core of our souls. It can evoke wonder and soften the calloused heart. Why can’t a commemorative statue carry the power of art?”
Beginning with Batman
The conclusion of Christopher Nolan’s acclaimed Dark Knight Trilogy includes the unveiling of a Batman statue. Batman is assumed dead, killed while saving Gotham City from a nuclear bomb. Clearly such an action deserves to be noted by legions of grateful survivors. Moreover, in Batman Begins, Batman also spearheaded the effort to stop the League of Shadows from infecting Gotham with a nerve toxin that would have decimated the populace and the city. He also ended the Joker’s relentless reign of terror in Dark Knight, freeing Gotham from the horror unleashed from his arch rival’s twisted imagination. Millions in Gotham are alive because of Batman. But there is another side of the man.
Breaking and entering. Assault. Assault and battery. Possession of illegal weapons. Destruction of property. Negligent homicide. Tampering with a crime scene. Reckless endangerment. Intimidation. Extortion. Illegal wiretaps. The use of torture. Vigilantism. These are all crimes that Batman could be charged with. Not to mention lesser infractions like an untold number of speeding and driving violations, vehicle registration violations, and zoning violations. I mean, if my deck gets taxed I’m pretty sure the Batcave ought to be!
Batman is a violent and hostile character. Most of us would cringe in his presence and others would call his methods into question. Perhaps nowhere is this aspect of the character made clearer than in Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns. In this story the U.S. government clamped down on the activities of superheroes, forcing them to retire or become government agents. When Superman accuses him of criminal behavior Batman notes, with great satisfaction, “Sure we’re criminals…we’ve always been criminals” (1). While this graphic novel is not a part of Nolan’s trilogy it is easy to imagine Nolan’s rendering of Batman articulating the same thought. Should Gotham City have a statue celebrating a reckless, violent criminal who is absolutely certain he is justified to act above (or at least outside) the law?
The Purpose of Statues
We live at a time when the value of certain statues and monuments are hotly debated. As is often the case, both sides are absolutely confident they are correct. While few explicitly claim it a sense of moral superiority permeates the words, slogans, and actions of many debaters. So much intensity poured into statues. I wonder if some narcissistic pigeon, sitting atop a bronzed head, is silently wondering, “What’s all the commotion? Am I not pooping properly?”
Statues, regardless of how the pigeons’ experience them, are not devoid of meaning. Granted, if an apocalyptic event occurred and the human race did not exist the pigeon and the deer would not debate a statue’s meaning. People are needed for such discussion. Because we can reflect, learn, evaluate, think abstractly, and hand-pick our facts, statues – like flags, badges, and neckties – become imbued with symbolic power.
No statue stands in a void. I would be a fool if I stood before the statue of Theodore Geisal (Dr. Seuss) in Springfield, Massachusetts and told my children he was being honored for inventing the light bulb! Statues, while not the keys to understanding history, do have a story to tell. They also reflect aspects of both the community (big and small) and what community values. When evaluating a statue (or memorial and historic site for that matter) I consider it essential to consider the following questions:
- Who is being honored? – I mean this in the most fundamental way. When walking through Boston with my children we saw a statue of Bill Russell. My son asked, “Who’s that guy?” The answer, Bill Russell.
- What did this person do? Without much discussion kids know that in order to have a statue the individual must have done SOMETHING! What was it?
- What values did the honored individual possess and promulgate? While this question is closely linked to question two, my experience explaining statues to my children convinces me it stands alone as a different aspect of our discussions.
- Where is the statue located? This matters a bit more than may be apparent at first glance. The unveiling of the Batman statue at the end of Dark Knight Rises took place in a municipal building, probably City Hall. I would hope the statue would not remain there. Batman saved Gotham and dedicated himself to protecting the citizens from crime and the corruption of municipalities. Should, however, Batman’s statue remain in City Hall it may well act as a stark reminder of the sacrifice one man had to make because of corrupt and ineffective leadership.
- What does the statue say about both the local community (town or state) and about the larger community (the nation) in which it stands? What do we stand for?
- What lessons can be learned from this statue? I am a teacher and always searching for the next lesson. I also teach history, where lessons can be painful, difficult, challenging, controversial, thought-provoking, and (dare I say) exciting. That might sound like too much to ask from our man-made landscape but, it does bring us back to the question, “What do we stand for?”
- Who funded the statue and when was it erected? These are research questions but they do shed light on the political nature of many statues on America’s landscape.
From Batman to John Brown
When I googled “Columbus honoring genocide” hits containing that phrase were instantly reported. When I googled “John Brown honoring brutality” articles instantly appeared that had nothing to do with the controversial abolitionist. Searching “John Brown honoring murder” summoned articles delving into the time-honored debate of hero or villain and murderer or martyr. A New York Times article calling for a posthumous pardon also appeared. Evidently supporting John Brown does not mean you support murder whereas, to some people, if one supports Columbus then he or she must, by extension, be supportive of genocide. I am not convinced supporting a statue reveals support for genocide or murder. I do, however, think certain monuments can be scrutinized using at least some of my evaluative tools. Let us begin with John Brown.
John Brown was, to be sure, a violent abolitionist. He was also an immediatist, meaning he wanted slavery abolished NOW! Not tomorrow and, preferably, yesterday. Moreover, unlike various abolitionists of the 1840’s and 1850’s, he believed in full civil rights as well. To dedicate oneself to freedom and equality clearly places John Brown in alignment with certain American ideals. To rage for the end of slavery with unrelenting passion and to fight for those trapped in the horrific state of bondage places Brown in the realm of hero. The manifestation of his core values, however, ran from the benign (his move to North Elba, New York) to the homicidal (Pottawatomie Creek Massacre) to the revolutionary (assault on Harpers Ferry).
John Brown, quite famously, attacked and, for the briefest of moments, seized the United States Armory and Arsenal at Harpers Ferry. The assault at Harpers Ferry was part of a grandeur scheme. He was assaulting slavery itself. He hoped that approximately 1,500 slaves would flee their plantations and meet him at Harpers Ferry. The degrading institution of slavery was sanctioned by the government at every level, local to federal. Laws were consistently passed to ensure its survival and spread. Every minute of its existence allowed the roots of racism to deepen their hold in our national consciousness, creating socio-psychological scars that persist to this day. John Brown strove to strike a death blow to this spiteful institution. There was a revolutionary logic to his actions. Moreover his intent, to end slavery, was noble and shared by millions of others. The Pottawatomie massacre was not part of such a far reaching strategy. It was rage and revenge. But it is also part of the man’s biography.
As May 24 became May 25, 1856 John Brown and a group of companions killed five pro-slavery men at Pottawatomie Creek. The men were politically pro-slavery but did not own slaves themselves. The men were killed on their front lawn, in front of the woman who was mother and wife. A younger boy also witnessed the slaughter. These facts do not give tremendous pause to modern supporters of John Brown. Nor did such activity even give pause to some of his contemporaries.
Henry David Thoreau, whose writing inspired non-violent activists from Gandhi to Dr. King, granted Brown his support. He drew a link between Christ and Brown, calling Brown an “angel of light”(2). The key, I believe, to understanding this view of Brown rises from the fact he opposed something so wretched (slavery) and stood for ideals so cherished (freedom and equality) that he is, generally speaking, forgiven his most horrific deeds. Turning again to Thoreau, Brown “offered himself to be the savior of four millions of men” (3).
In the end, the nation’s inability to settle the issue of slavery peacefully led to violence on a scale far greater than John Brown’s activity. Perhaps greater than even he imagined when he proclaimed, “I, John Brown, am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land can never be purged away but with blood. I had, as I now think, vainly flattered myself that without very much bloodshed, it might be done” (4).
I must confess, I am not always comfortable with the mirror that is John Brown but I know the value of peering into the shadow from time to time. What does he reveal about us? What amount of hostility do we find acceptable? What rage, often justified as righteous, do people seek to unleash? When can we accept doing something horrible for a noble cause? How should I handle and channel my own frustration and anger? How do we balance noble intention with frightening impulses?
Let those statues of ole John Brown stand. Let him remind us that the failure to address human suffering ultimately leads to extreme action. Let us look at him and hope that we can solve the issues of today without the need to become or support midnight executioners or practitioners of violence. We can let his truth (the need for freedom and equality) march on without subscribing to violent actions. Perhaps by showing us the shadows John Brown can help us find the diamonds in the dark.
Reimagining Columbus: What Do We Stand For?
Perhaps no historic figure’s legacy has been as scrutinized over the past decade as that of Christopher Columbus. His actions, particularly those taken from his second through his fourth voyage, are disturbing. An investigation led by Francisco de Bobadilla led to Columbus’ imprisonment for brutality, mutilation, and torture.
Modern anti-Columbus voices often point to this brutality, as well as the genocidal impact Columbus had on the Native population, as key grounds for removal of Columbus from our national landscape and calendar. Others point out Columbus failed to achieve his stated goal (reaching India by sailing west), did not discover America (Natives were here and Vikings had journeyed to North America), and did not prove the Earth was round (which he and most educated people of his times already knew). The facts of history, according to some, make it clear that the Italian explorer deserves no remembrance or holiday.
There are, however, other facts that need to be admitted. Whatever information the Vikings gained regarding the world’s geography was not part of the knowledge base of 15th century Europe. European nations simply did not have knowledge of North and South America. Europe. I am unaware of any of Columbus’ contemporaries positing the question, “But Chris, how will you get by those land masses the Vikings encountered?” Columbus did reveal the existence of previously unknown land masses. Ironically, he would stubbornly maintain he was off the coast of India throughout his life.
He was also the vanguard of a wave of westward exploration that led to Spain’s Western Hemisphere Empire. Spain’s European competitors followed suit, which ultimately did lead to the founding of the United States. He is clearly not the founder of this (or any) nation. He is, perhaps more than any other individual, the catalyst of the centuries of events that led to the expansion of European powers into North and South America. His journey impacted history deeply. It matters little to me that someone else may have filled this role had Columbus not existed. He is the one who performed the task.
To be balanced, this also makes him the catalyst of the events that led to the downfall of many Native tribes. The utter ruin of these tribes cannot be laid entirely at Columbus’ feet. Generations of Conquistadors, explorers, and U.S. Presidents and politicians participated. To heap scorn on Columbus for the actions of others is unnecessary. Worse, it is ahistorical. Let others accept their fair share of blame. His personal actions of torture, enslavement, and humiliation are reason enough to dismiss the concept of Columbus as hero. What to do about Columbus? Shall we wipe him completely away from our national landscape? Let’s not be too hasty.
Columbus, warts and all, risked his life and reputation to pursue his goals. He defied expectations and changed the course of world events. Columbus’ greatest contribution was as an explorer, specifically on his first trip in 1492. In 2012 Karl Frank, a resident of St. Louis, worked with Tom Diehl and Rod Wright to launch an audacious plan. They sought to transform Columbus Day to Exploration Day (5). One supporter of the idea wrote Exploration Day “would put an end to the awkward sanctification of the deeply flawed Columbus while continuing to celebrate his exploratory zeal” (6). A day dedicated to “exploratory zeal.” To have a day dedicated to honoring the determination and fiery spirit that drove William James to study the mind, allowed Neil Armstrong to walk on the moon, James Watson to unravel DNA, and a host of others who pushed boundaries and expand our collective knowledge. It also allows Columbus exploration to remain a part of our landscape because it is, when all is said and done, part of our history. This does, of course, leave us with 1493 when Columbus became conqueror and tyrannical governor.
Some landmarks and statues should remain to remind us of fell deeds and mistakes of our collective past. By maintaining them, in a historically accurate and challenging manner, we are making a bold statement. Acknowledging failures is more than an act of shame. It can rejuvenate the soul as we promise to do better. Maybe that’s a lot to ask of historic sites. Art, however, can heal. Art can speak to the logic of our dreams and touch the emotive core of our souls. It can evoke wonder and soften the calloused heart. Why can’t a commemorative statue carry the power of art?
Could we accept a statue of Columbus that simultaneously reflected both sides of the man, leaving visitors to ponder his place on our national landscape? Perhaps a Jekyll and Hyde rendering of Columbus would be best. A statue with Columbus as explorer with the date 1492 on a placard backed with a statue of Columbus as conqueror with the date 1493 could present us this challenge. Or, instead of the dual interpretation of Columbus, a rendering of a weeping member of the Arakawa tribe could be standing above the date 1493.
There is also the idea of replacing Columbus Day with Indigenous People Day. Supporting the transformation Columbus Day to Exploration Day does not remove the creation of Indigenous People Day. In fact, I think one enhances the other. The holiday should be founded on a separate date. Indigenous People Day should be more than a rejection of Columbus Day. It is worthy to stand on its own accord. The inspirational Shawnee warrior Tecumseh was born in March, as was the dignified Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce. Perhaps a day in March would be an appropriate time to honor Native Americans, reflect on what was lost, consider the courage and dignity of their struggle, and consider what the wisest course of action going forward is (7).
The Eternal Struggle and Andrew Jackson
In 2011 my book The Eternal Struggle was released.( Don’t worry if you missed it, so did everybody else! ) In that book, which was inspired by the idea of Lord of the Rings meets Dante’s Inferno, historic figures are assigned roles and locations in the afterlife. Columbus was assigned to Hell for his moral shortcomings, as was Andrew Jackson. If there was one person whom I could remove from our national landscape it would be Andrew Jackson. Not his name, per say, but historic renderings of him on horses and vigorously riding into battle all have to go. He also does not deserve the honor of being on the twenty dollar bill. The rise of Indigenous People Day should be the fall of Andrew Jackson.
The Trail of Tears. Worcester v. Georgia. These linked events are enough to question any necessity to honor Andrew Jackson. Jackson, as President of the United States, advocated passionately for the Indian Removal Act. The act became law in 1830. As a provision of the law unsettled land to the west of the Mississippi was offered to various tribes in exchange for lands in the east. Some tribes took the offer. Others, like the Cherokee, were forcibly removed. The mandated march claimed approximately 4,000 lives.
Chief John Ross of the Cherokee, in a desperate letter to Congress penned in 1836, described his people’s plight. “Our property may be plundered before our eyes; violence may be committed on our persons; even our lives may be taken away, and there is none to regard our complaints. We are denationalized; we are disfranchised. We are deprived of membership in the human family!” In the end he beseeched the United States for aid. “Before your august assembly we present ourselves, in the attitude of deprecation, and of entreaty. On your kindness, on your humanity, on your compassion, on your benevolence, we rest our hopes. To you we address our reiterated prayers. Spare our people! Spare the wreck of our prosperity! Let not our deserted homes become the monuments of our desolation!” (8)
This series of events alone should alter the manner Jackson is presented on our national landscape if we allow him to be presented at all! His crimes extend beyond the tribes he displaced. Jackson assaulted the Constitution as well. The Cherokee had long maintained they were a sovereign people while the state of Georgia claimed rights to Cherokee territory. The Supreme Court Case Worcester v. Georgia brought a decision favorable to the Cherokee, declaring, “The Cherokee nation, then, is a distinct community occupying its own territory in which the laws of Georgia can have no force” (9)
Georgia ignored the decision and President Jackson let them. The chief executive did not execute the law. He stated the decision “fell still born” and the court was powerless to force Georgia to “yield to its mandates” (10). A state disapproved of Supreme Court decision and, therefore, ignores it. The President not only allowed, but encouraged this activity. He placed himself above the law in a nation that proposes to embrace the rule of law. The New York Times called for a posthumous pardon of John Brown. Can we add a posthumous impeachment for Andrew Jackson?
Back to Gotham
Let us finish where we started, back in Gotham looking up at the statue of Batman. We know what he’s done, the lives saved, and the laws broken. We know the intention of the character and can pick a fitting location for the statue. The question remains, does he deserve it? I suppose the deck is stacked a bit in his fictional world but we can always bring it back to our nation. There are many historic sites left untouched by this essay. Who stays? Who gets reimagined? Who would you remove? Lastly, and most importantly, who do we honor next?
(1) Can’t recommend Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns strongly enough. Here’s a link to it at Amazon.
(5) For more information please see http://www.stltoday.com/news/local/columns/bill-mcclellan/columbus-day-or-explorers-day-mcclellan-is-a-traditionalist/article_7ba40895-309c-564e-8dbc-ada1a8336b67.html or https://www.cnet.com/news/should-columbus-day-be-changed-to-exploration-day/
(7) A final thought on Exploration Day/Indigenous People Day symmetry. If Indigenous People Day replaced Columbus Day the two become forever linked. I contend any day honoring Native Americans, their culture, their past, and future dreams and visions need not spring from Columbus. Let him be absorbed by other explorers and, if he can not withstand the competition, sail from site with not yearly reminder of why Indigenous People Day came to be.