monuments, memory, and justice

Every day in high school, my trusty M4 bus route passed a monument on Fifth Avenue and 103rd Street. I asked a friend one day if he, an older and wiser junior, knew why it was there. “I don’t know,” he answered, “but if it were me, I’d rather people ask ‘why isn’t there a monument of him?’ than to have a statue of him and not know why.”

The monument I stared at blankly as a teenager is of J. Marion Sims, a doctor who advanced the field of gynecology using the bodies and suffering of black women who had no opportunity to consent.

When video circulated of the August 19 protest against the monument, organized by Seshat Mack and BYP 100, I appreciated all over again how long I’d been ignorant about this statue that is right, so to speak, in my backyard.

“I’d rather people ask ‘why isn’t there a monument of him?’ than to have a statue of him and not know why.”

New York City is not immune to the debate about racist monuments. In some cases, activists have been working for years to get people to take action. The paternalistic, dominating Teddy Roosevelt greeting thousands of children and adults daily in front of the Museum of Natural History is one example, and the Sims statue is another. There are also longstanding efforts to remove monuments to Christopher Columbus, and to change the October holiday (more on that, teachers, in a few weeks).

It has ruffled some feathers. City representatives who identify as Italian-American recently went on the defensive about the Christopher Columbus statue at 59th Street, with arguments that eerily echo the defenses of Confederate monuments in the south: “This is our heritage.” “Taking it down is erasing history.” (As an Italian American, I’d rather see him replaced by Maria Montessori, but that’s just me.)

It’s strange to be able to remember my state of ignorance about the Sims monument, but it immediately spurred my thinking about my own students today. What would it have meant, as a teen, to learn enough history to actually have an opinion about the monument?

I tried to remember when I did finally learn about the bloody history surrounding Sims’s work. Years later and a little farther down Fifth Avenue, I worked as an educator at the Guggenheim Museum during an exhibit of work by Carrie Mae Weems, including the stunning series “From Here I Saw What Happened and I Cried,” which includes archival photographs overlaid with her own text on etched glass. The series does not explicitly mention Anarcha, Lucy, and Betsy (some of the women operated on by Sims), but for whatever reason I associate this exhibit with finally learning about Sims’s exploitation of black women, and that it was not uncommon in the history of medicine. Tellingly, my history education hadn’t covered this. It was the work of a black woman artist that schooled me.

I can’t ignore the opportunity we have as educators right now to use these debates to educate ourselves, teach more thoughtfully, and engage more deeply with students about the implications in our own communities. Here’s one plan:

Take an inventory of the monuments, buildings, and streets in your school community. Who are they named for? Who do they commemorate? How did those monuments or names get there? (Follow the money!) Do your homework!

Then, tell the stories, plural. Was Sims a pioneer, or a butcher? Who is included in his story? Who is left out? (Note: this is a prime opportunity to practice close reading, using primary sources, evaluating author’s purpose, and a ton of other skills that are already on your curriculum plan.)

Then, join with students and ask some good questions. Who does this monument serve? Who does it hurt? How could this story, and this monument, be done differently? (THIS is a great opportunity for things like persuasive writing and/or public speaking, as well as art and multimedia projects.)

When your classroom community is ready, take action! Write letters (more ELA practice!), make a video and share it, or partner with organizations involved in evaluating and changing monuments in your community.

Teachers need not tell students what to think. But to not present the facts denies students the opportunity to decide for themselves.

Consider how many schools there are within a half mile radius of the Sims statue. Imagine the momentum students and families could build working with neighborhood associations and institutions like the Museum of the City of New York — which has already taken a stand! — to take down monuments to supremacy and dream together about the names and deeds we do want celebrated in our community.

Teachers need not tell students what to think. But to not present the facts denies students the opportunity to decide for themselves, and to grapple with important questions of memory, identity, and power.

Again: you don’t need to tell students what to think. But put the facts in front of them — from multiple angles and sources when you can — and give them the opportunity to think, debate, and grapple. Right now our communities and our country need people who can do that, especially young people. And for what it’s worth: the ability to think critically and empathetically and articulate an argument just happen to be hallmarks of a great education.

How are you engaging with your students about monuments, history, and white supremacy? Leave a comment or tweet if you’d like to share!

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