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Public Space: A Platform for Concepts of Race

Max Elias, Scarlet Staff

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In “Race, Memory and Public Space,” Professor Mabel O. Wilson, Associate Director of the Institute for Research in African-American Studies, spoke about the controversies and historical evolution of monuments such as Confederate statues.

Despite the topic’s relevance having been brought to the attention of many due to recent developments, the lecture was not conceived following the events in Charlottesville. Wilson has been interested in this subject for a number of years.

Her central question was based off the fact that “one value central to the question of public good is how we interpret the past.” Based on that, she approached the question through a historical evolution of monument usage.

She discussed ideologies that motivated these monuments beginning with European colonizers, whose ideologies grew into those of Americans. Writers such as Immanuel Kant established a narrative of Europeans and the ‘others,’ which helped establish the white European as the universal man. This carried over into establishment of monuments to celebrate those virtues, which they were convinced black people did not possess.

The philosophies of the Enlightenment—those prioritizing reason and natural law—were used in revolutionary times to portray black people as talentless, unintelligent, and emotionless. Similarly in this era, buildings like Thomas Jefferson’s statehouse in Virginia were constructed, which Wilson explained as signifying the values of whiteness, drawing on its Greco-Roman construction and function as a bastion of American politics, which was a domain for white landowners in those days.

Wilson’s point was not necessarily that racist monuments have been a persistent phenomenon throughout the country’s history, but particularly to illustrate that simple buildings and statues carry ideological weight. African-American monuments from similar historical periods exist, although they rest on decidedly different interpretations of the past.

Wilson cited a monument to Frederick Douglass as an example of this. It was erected in Rochester to honor the man, and symbolized both a storied struggle and a potential future. Further developing Wilson’s theory of monuments imposing ideology in public spaces, the South attempted to commission statues portraying African-Americans as big-lipped, overly dark, primitive-featured stereotypes—conforming to their interpretation of history.

In 1913, the Temple of Beauty was created as a monument to black culture and curated by W.E.B DuBois. In stark contrast to monuments like the Jefferson statehouse, it drew on Egyptian and Nubian architecture rather than Greco-Roman features.

The structure and the exhibits contained within it celebrate Africanism and portray Africans as a people with an extensive history and culture, rather than savages that needed whiteness to become civilized. The Temple of Beauty drew from the same historical background as Jefferson’s statehouse, demonstrating the impact of interpretation on outcome.

Another cited example from a similar time is the so-called “Negro Building” erected in South Carolina. The original architect planned to memorialize the four races in America—white, African, Native American, and Spaniard—but the building ended up being another collection of racist imagery. The building featured statues of African-Americans as caricatures and recalled Reconstruction-era minstrel shows.

This time the Southern attempt to preserve their conception of history was poorly received by African-Americans in South Carolina. It was viewed as insulting and not reflective of the actual African-American experience and cultural background.

The general difference in monuments created by African-Americans and whites that Wilson noted was that in the case of African-Americans “the monuments did not signify past events, but were meant to evoke events yet to happen,” which is why they often had a regal bent. In contrast, monuments and buildings commissioned by whites often rested on beliefs about African-Americans in the past and desire to maintain those interpretations.

Even though the lecture was not inspired by the Charlottesville events this past August, Wilson offered a word of caution on modern Confederate monuments: given the historical use of monuments as vehicles for ideology, she pointed out that it is necessary to be mindful of the way the monuments reinforce whiteness as normative and blackness as ‘other.’

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Public Space: A Platform for Concepts of Race