by Jilleen Barrett & Alexa Schmidt, A&E Editor & Senior Writer
Peace and Justice week took place at Manhattan College during the last week of February and included many events which honored the theme of “Remembering What Really Happened: Peace and Justice for a New Millenium.” One of the first events was “Making Sense of Historical Monuments” with Lisa Blee, Ph.D.
Blee is a professor at Wake Forest University and teaches many courses surrounding American history. Her research includes American Indian and settler politics, historical memory and commemorations. Blee’s lecture focused on the controversies that surround monuments built for famous historical figures who were once considered heroes, and how protests are affecting American lives.
“Memorials and historical monuments are ubiquitous across the country, and they become flashpoints for protests and confrontations,” Blee said. “The 2017 Unite the Right gathered in Charlottesville and rallied around the city’s Confederate monuments. And then the violent confrontation with antiracism protesters resulted in the murder of Heather Heyer this past summer of 2020. In direct response to the murder of George Floyd, we saw research and activism in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement around monuments to slavery and white supremacy.”
She also explained how protestors are often met with a reaction from the government.
“Alongside the clashes over the removal of monuments, we see movement to protect monuments and to create new ones,” she said. “Several states passed laws against the removal and President Trump signed an executive order in 2020, calling for stiff penalties for altering federally owned monuments.”
Despite the law protecting existing monuments, it does not prevent new ones from being erected or institutions to evaluate their history.
“In 2018, the first memorial to the victims of lynching opened in Montgomery, Alabama, and a new monument to those murdered in the 1950s civil rights struggle was added a year later,” Blee said. “Several universities have recently empowered conditions to investigate their institutions’ role and slavery, and contemplate building memorials on campus, most notably, I think, a memorial to enslaved laborers at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.”
Rosy Moody, a junior history major at Manhattan College, attended the event and had the opportunity to ask Blee a question. She explained that she believes reviewing the nation’s history is important, even if it is uncomfortable to do so.
“I sked, ‘to what extent is it historically important to keep monuments that might be problematic?’” she wrote in a message to The Quadrangle. “As a history major I know a lot of history is upsetting but it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t remember it and learn.”
Others in the MC community have considered the idea of discussing the history behind monuments, including Marisa Lerer, Ph.D. Lerer, an associate professor of art history, explained how she plans to integrate what she learned from Blee into her curriculum.
“I teach a course specifically on monuments and memorials, but in all of my courses we discuss monument and memorial construction as well as the controversies that surround them,” Lerer said. “We also examine how some artists in the 19th and early 20th century depict Native Americans as if they’ve vanished so discussing the Cyrus Dallin’s statue Massasoit that Dr. Blee focused on and the impact that it has on revisiting history and commemorative practices will most certainly enrich my classes. It provides another critical example of the way that monuments impact historical dialogues.”
Lerer believes that monuments are certainly works of art, but also views them as a representation of all aspects of a culture, which reiterates the question of if certain monuments should be removed altogether.
“I think what’s most important to remember is that a monument is always a reflection of the people’s beliefs who commissioned it at the time that a monument was created,” she said. “What they represent can change over time.”
Blee ended the lecture with the notion that tropes often get repeated. While history can be altered to fit a certain narrative, historians and regular people alike have the power to change it for a better future.
“Where memory denies the deep histories of people and their continuing presence in urban and modern spaces, it’s quite deliberately being discussed. When it comes to the pursuit of peace and justice nationally or in your own neighborhood, you might ask yourselves whether we want to continue to tell such narratives about our history. So we return to my main question: what do the particular monuments do for our society in terms of peace and justice? They demand that we reflect and engage monuments, open conversations on whether we might value other perspectives as we define our collective identity. They are never the last word.”