Language Matters When Describing Changes to Monument Landscape

Yesterday morning the city of Boston removed the Freedman’s Memorial or Emancipation Group from Park Square. It will be placed temporarily in storage until a new home is chosen, where the memorial can be properly interpreted for the general public. The memorial is a copy of the one dedicated in Washington, D.C. in 1876 on the anniversary of Lincoln’s assassination.

Interpreting the Freedman’s Memorial in Washington, D.C. for a group of history educators

The removal of the memorial caps off a year of intense focus on our nation’s monument landscape stretching back to early June, following the police killing of George Floyd. Since then close to 90 Confederate monuments have come down. It is likely that more Confederate monuments came down in 2020 than were dedicated in any given year during the height of monument dedications in the Jim Crow era.

The language we use to describe these changes to this landscape matters. All too often monuments have been described as having been “ripped” or “torn” down. A number of monuments have been damaged and/or “tagged” with varying messages, but overall relatively few have been torn down—language that I would suggest is more appropriate when describing the involvement of protesters. In the case of Confederate monuments only 9 have been intentionally ripped or torn down by protesters.

The vast majority of Confederate monuments, as well as the Freedman’s Memorial here in Boston, were removed only after a series of meetings and hearings. This past summer the Boston Arts Commission held virtual hearings about the memorial. I listened as one African American mother described having to walk by the memorial every morning with her young son, who would ask ‘why there is a Black man who looks like daddy kneeling in front of a white man.’

Not one of the monuments that once graced prominent public spaces that followed this trajectory are properly described as having been torn or ripped down. They were removed by the people, whose values and sense of shared past we are supposed to believe are represented by these very monuments. I don’t know of a single monument that was in the slightest way damaged as a result of these legal removals.

I have zero patience with people who compare these removals with the Taliban’s destruction of religious artifacts or who describe it as cultural cleansing and an erasure of history. Nothing could be further from the truth.

The courses of action embraced by communities across the country over the past few years to decide whether their memorials and monuments are still appropriate may be far from perfect, but ultimately this is what democracy looks like.

13 comments… add one
  • MSB Dec 31, 2020 @ 13:30

    Sharp observations, thanks.
    Conversations about monuments should consider not only what the builders/supporters intended then to convey but also what today’s users of public think they convey. In literature, the latter is examined by “reception studies”. What a monument “means” is what the people who live around it – all of them – perceive it as meaning. And it’s their right to determine what their environment says to its users,

  • Frank Skip Shaffer Dec 30, 2020 @ 6:56

    Well, here goes: The kneeling freedman, if bowing at all, should be thanking men like my ancestors who picked up the tab with guns, wounds and lives for the quill pen work of Lincoln. THEY did the heavy lifting , as it were, while Lincoln was having his egg and a cup of coffee. Lot of good guys died making Lincoln famous and ‘immortal’.

    Too many of the new civil war writers, like the owner of this blog, start their historical timelines with Thaddeus Stevens and the 13th Amendment. Or so it seems. You want to meet at Brandy Station for a drink? It’s a battle? Oh. This is a generational, shift, and so, the story will be re-told.

    I wonder, when all of the statues are down, what will Mr. Levin write about. Black Civil War Confederates soldiers? That’s a bit too easy a target, and largely unnoticed except in Lexington, Va, and the lower south.

    Speaking of “Language matters”, I love Fred Douglass’ phrase, “A perfect steel trap”, words he supposedly spoke to actual hero, John Brown, describing Harpers Ferry. No way would Fred charge those guns. He must of thought, ‘heck no, I’m not going to be an Elmer Ellsworth.” He chose the easy way out.

    • Kevin Levin Dec 30, 2020 @ 6:59

      Hi Frank,

      Thanks for taking the time to comment, though I am not exactly sure what point you are trying to make.

      • Frank "Skip" Shaffer Dec 30, 2020 @ 7:11

        Thank you Kevin. Fred Douglas was great with language, but young enough to fight. You know Ellsworth, I assume?

        There is a new generation of CW historians, and the story is going to be re-told. And they are going to leave a lot out of the story. You know, You cannot have Michigan-Ohio State without Ohio State.

        The soldiers deserve the credit for the freedom. I am biased, as a Veteran, and in possession of the journals describing how Lincoln’s dream ruined their lives.

        Sorry if what I wrote was too esoteric, or far-fetched.I read it again, it was fine.

        But, what is next for you? Who or what is your next target?

        • Kevin Levin Dec 30, 2020 @ 7:26

          Again, I still do not know what you are asking of me. What do you mean by “target”? What is it about the subjects that I research that you have a problem with? Please be specific if you expect a response.

    • James Harrigan Dec 30, 2020 @ 8:12

      Frank Skip Shaffer, wtf? If you have a point you are trying to make, you are failing. Incidentally, Frederick (not Fred) Douglass was 42 years old in 1860. Two of his sons served in the USCT.

  • Jimmy Johnson Dec 30, 2020 @ 5:43

    As far as I’m concerned, every statue of Abe Lincoln should be taken down. What a con-artist. I’m still waiting for an answer from you leftists as to why the Emancipation Proclamation only applied to slaves within the states in rebellion, and not Ohio, Illinois, Kentucky, Delaware and Maryland. And why was the Great Emancipator so in favor of the original 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which if ratified, would have enshrined slavery as the law of the land forever.

    • Kevin Levin Dec 30, 2020 @ 5:46

      I answered your silly question. This is your final comment. I am done wasting my time with you. Good day.

    • Andy Hall Dec 30, 2020 @ 9:17

      “And why was the Great Emancipator so in favor of the original 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which if ratified, would have enshrined slavery as the law of the land forever.”

      Jimmy, what part of “I have no objection” transmutes to being “so in favor of?”

      I understand a proposed amendment to the Constitution–which amendment, however, I have not seen–has passed Congress, to the effect that the Federal Government shall never interfere with the domestic institutions of the States, including that of persons held to service. To avoid misconstruction of what I have said, I depart from my purpose not to speak of particular amendments so far as to say that, holding such a provision to now be implied constitutional law, I have no objection to its being made express and irrevocable.

      As for that amendment becoming “the law of the land forever,” that’s fantasy, regardless of its authors’ intent or actual wording. No amendment supersedes or preempts any other, and it could have — surely would have — been repealed by a follow-on amendment, as has happened in other cases.

      One of the great ironies of American history is that the raging, spittle-flecked fire-eaters who helped propel the southern states to secede in order to preserve the institution of slavery, ended up killing it much sooner than would otherwise have been the case.

  • George A. Brown Dec 30, 2020 @ 5:27

    I feel the removal of he statue is appropriate. As a life long Bostonian, I first notice the statue circa 1999 and felt belittled and angry. Because of the location, the statue wasn’t that visible and I had since forgotten its existence. Good decision.

  • Adam O. Dec 30, 2020 @ 4:44

    Thoughtful piece at a time when we need thoughtful pieces. Thank you for writing this.

    • Kevin Levin Dec 30, 2020 @ 4:52

      Thanks for the feedback.

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