A petition is now making the rounds to keep the “Fearless Girl” monument in downtown New York City in place indefinitely. The small monument of a girl standing defiantly against the famous Wall Street charging bull has proven to be very popular. It has been interpreted in more than one way and has altered the broader meaning of the bull itself. This is something that has not sat well with the bull’s sculptor.
Should the “Fearless Girl” stay, be relocated or be removed? How, if at all, does it alter this particular commercial landscape? Finally, do the questions about this monument point the way forward or help us to think about the ongoing controversy about Confederate monuments?
A friend of mine who happens to be a very smart public historian offered the following observation in response to the above controversy:
What if, in keeping with the crowd that’s calling for adding new monuments rather than taking down the old ones, we were to add slaves to the base of the statues of Lee, Davis, or Stonewall Jackson in Richmond, just as this girl was added to the bull? Or what if there was a US Army soldier added like this girl, with bayoneted musket leveled at Lee and Davis enforcing the law and the Constitution and defiantly standing in the way of their secession and treason? How would that transform those monuments from symbols of the Lost Cause into something entirely new and different? It’s an option that we haven’t thought about. It satisfies those who say that taking them down destroys or covers up history; it preserves the monuments as part of the history of the built environment, thus satisfying the historic preservationists; and it gives the subjects of the monuments a 21st century sensibility.
I immediately thought of the recent decision in Charlottesville, Virginia to remove the Lee monument. One of the recommendations of the Blue Ribbon commission was to commemorate Liberation and Freedom Day – the day that Union soldiers entered the city in March 1865. In fact, the first such celebration took place just a few weeks ago. But what if instead of removing the Lee monument a Union soldier was added to the landscape. That soldier could also be depicted as a United States Colored Troop even though they were not present. I suspect that this is something that the Friends of C-Ville Monuments could get behind.
It’s not that I oppose the removal of Confederate monuments. As I have said many times, it is ultimately up to the residents to decide. What I do believe, however, is that the right sort of addition to the landscape can have a profound impact on its meaning. I have also suggested before that Charlottesville is the right place to try something like this.
I suspect the preservationists would be satisfied. Of course, the Lost Cause crowd would be up in arms, but they would no longer be able to claim that history is being erased. If anything a bit of history that has been forgotten or ignored would be acknowledged. They would be free to ignore whatever has been added and focus their attention on Lee.
It might also render interpretive panels or wayside markers as unnecessary. I for one welcome the multiple interpretations of the “Fearless Girl.” That is what makes it so interesting. No official interpretation necessary.
It’s not that removal or relocation is necessarily wrong. In some cases it may be the only reasonable response. But what it doesn’t deal with, however, is the underlying problem of how we think about our shared history and how it continues to shape the present, regardless of whether we acknowledge it or not.