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Between History and the Hard Place?

If we don’t remember the past, we are doomed to repeat it. I think most people in the Western world have heard some iteration of this quote during their lives, possibly during a history class, a speech from a concerned parent, or perhaps one of their favorite, moralizing television shows. But recently, at least in the caustic universe that is the major media circuit, people have been posting that we need to either reconsider or simply consider the past. And I’ll explain the difference because it makes all the difference in a time where federal statues are falling faster than I can type this editorial.

            It all really started decades ago as Universities started publishing essays concerned with reevaluating the morality of honoring certain figures in our history. Throughout the 60’s and the 70’s, these writings inspired a new generation of critical thinkers to challenge status quo ideas of history’s most famed characters, no matter how much they may have contributed positively. This was the start of the redress of American infallibility. Why? Because historians, anthropologists and liberalism were shouting that these very people, Like Columbus or Teddy Roosevelt and more, were distinctly evil as well. What kind of evil? The kind that should force us to reconsider just how much they fit with in the “America is on the side of righteousness” paradigm. Truth be told, I used to sit and listen to the tale of Columbus, sailing his ship to the “New World”and think to my 4th grade self “ that’s so cool, he did that for us!”. But then I grew up and I no longer felt like I could say that European exploitation of indigenous Caribbeans is really an “us” kind of thing. Especially since half my family tree was colonized by the efforts Columbus’s voyage leveraged upon the world. But still, as an American, I wanted to be proud of American heroes, regardless of race and Europeanness. Thus, I told people for years that Teddy Roosevelt was my favorite president. Why? He was a man who cared about the holistic health of the nation, one of the first prominent supporters of land conservation, a Republican who challenged the hegemony of corporations over government and a serious warrior who knew the grit and grime of war and thus did not rush to it. But…I later learned on a weekend dark and dreary that he stated in a speech that Blacks were the pursuers of white people because they were legtimit threats to raoe white women, if left unchecked. Appalling words. Absolutely disgusting. I felt a crashing dilemma because my very Americanness was challenged. How could I say this man, who would never want my support, is my favorite President.How could I celebrate or extol Jefferson,my ancestor, who owned my other ancestor, Sally Hemmings. How could I look to any of the heroes my westernized private schools had taught me to love, embrace, find strength in and still be a black man who cared about telling the other side of our history; who now had to confront the other side of dead, “great” and formative men -and women. 

            But does the path to reconsideration really best the path of merely considering the totality of the arch of these individuals lives by valuing the good they did over the bad. It’s the same question I had to answer about my father, who for years I hated but have now come to understand better since his death and even, though I bite my tongue to admit it, find myself missing some of our better days together. You see remembrance is a funny thing. The dead can’t convince you to remember what made them a part of the progress of mankind, they are only still frames for us to do with as we will. We can shout at them, we can shout for them, we can march and tear them down or we can build even more statues and double down. If we choose to consider them, considerately, then we will not care who their legacy offends, even if it’s those this nation, heck this world, has not cared if it offended for far too long. But if Columbus were here today or Roosevelt were campaigning now, having grown up with 21st century values abounding, would they not say that they ,if not were condemnable, were at least flawed. Would Robert E Lee ,if he grew up in Queen, NY, march with BLM and say “Tear my statue down!”. What would you say if you grew up in conservative Alabama in the late 50’s, or hyper partisan Florida in the early 2000’s? This hypothetical may seem ridiculous but it is a worthy venture to hazard because we rarely consider or reconsider just what the heroes of the past may say now that enough history has gone by for them to become the villains. Maybe it’s karma, just due for the crimes against the historically voiceless. I think it certainly is American. People forget that the founding of this nation was based on criticism. Thomas Paine, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Voltaire,  and more, whether founding father or philosopher extraordinaire who inspired them, helped to create a new country out of the depths of the power of criticism. Whether through oratory or the words on a page, critique, dispute, disagreement, concord through compromise and dialogue with those who see things differently did not make enemies within the ranks of the founders of this nation, one that has been on a slow march but a march nonetheless to freedom like the world has never known, or if it now knows it, knows it because of “us”. And I say “us” because Harriet Tubman, Dorothy Day, Aaron Douglas, Langston Hughes, Sojourner Truth, Cesar Chavez, Dr. Martin Luther King, members of the Indigneous nations, freedom fighters, fire fighters, liberals and conservatives all from populations that were hushed by the lash or policy have manumitted this nation from enslaving itself morally and they are who we should be memorializing. Remember, Germany still remembers the Reich and its evil yet no statues from that era stand now. We must remember those that critiqued “us”, that critiqued the American project and remember that those that stood on margins are the dead and eternal American monuments.After all, there’s no statues of the Judeo-Christian God and yet we have no problems remembering His history. I’m sure we’ll be just fine remembering what ,we hope and pray, whatever God exists finds abhorrent, whether that be the confederacy, slavery, forced relocation or segregation. So if we are to consider the good in Columbus and Roosevelt, let us reconsider how much we must equal every complicated figure with one that is much less so. Let us formulate a new algorithm for how we pledge to never forget, by building new statues too, and letting the old ones raise an eyebrow or a fist into the air, or the idea to put something else, say more indicative more “us”, in its place.

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