We rarely, if ever, forget the past in its entirety. The stories we do and don't tell about ourselves can expand or limit our sense of what's possible, and of which voices are heard.
Part of the work of commemorative justice—which seeks to conscientiously correct a biased historical record that suppresses the stories of Black, Indigenous, and people of color—is to shine a light on the inequities in our collective memory. The term was coined by activist Free Egunfemi Bangura, whose ongoing project of sharing silenced histories in Richmond, Virginia, is part of a larger movement for racial justice in the US.
The commemorative justice movement aims to tell stories we rarely read in books or learn in the classroom. One way to describe this process is a "critical remembering" of the past. "Storytelling in this form," argues scholar Monica Muñoz Martinez in her book The Injustice Never Leaves You, is a "process that refuses forgetting."
For her part, Brooklyn artist Nona Faustine refuses to forget the legacy of slavery in New York City, and how, as a Black woman, she would have been sold as chattel labor on the streets of Manhattan. In her 2013 photograph From Her Body Came Their Greatest Wealth, Faustine stands nude on a wooden platform at a former slave-trading site in the Financial District. At the intersection of Wall and Pearl Streets, Faustine appears like a modern monument to the systematic dehumanization of enslaved Africans there.
Monuments say just as much, if not more, about the beliefs and culture of the people who erected them than the figures they represent. Most of the Confederate memorials in the United States, for instance, were erected during Jim Crow segregation to glorify the cause of secession. The Robert E. Lee statue along Richmond's Monument Avenue was first up, in 1890, and more were added during the "Lost Cause" movement and Virginia's resistance to racially integrate its public schools. Even though it took more than a century of grassroots activism (including work led by Bangura), the Robert E. Lee statue is finally coming down.
But racist monuments are not just a problem in the Southern United States. For the people of Philadelphia, that symbol of white supremacy was former police chief Frank Rizzo, who served as mayor from 1972 to 1980. A notorious bigot, Rizzo was memorialized in a statue across from City Hall in 1998. In early June, Philadelphians—led mostly by activists of color—decided that the mayor's legacy was no longer a history worth commemorating, and have removed his image from across the city. Similarly, anti-racism protesters in Bristol, England, tore down a statue of slave trader Edward Colston, then dragged the figure into the harbor nearby on June 7. Shortly after, a statue of Belgian King Leopold II, responsible for the brutal colonization of the Congo, was pulled from its plinth in Antwerp.
"Right now, we must work not just to fill the empty place once occupied by the Rizzo statue, but re-envision the power structures that landed it there in the first place," Paul Farber writes in the Philadelphia Inquirer . As a local museum worker and organizer, I see the ways that racial inequality and a lack of historical imagination intersect. If we don't understand our past in its entirety, and finally listen to those silenced voices, we can't expect to do better in the future.
What happens now, where we live? In Kingston at Academy Green, three outsized bronze figures remind us of rarely told New York histories: Peter Stuyvesant tried to eject Jewish refugees fleeing persecution, calling them a "deceitful race." Governor George Clinton, who also has a building named after him across the street, owned eight enslaved African Americans. Henry Hudson colonized the Lenape territory for the Dutch East India Company.
Monuments in public spaces show what and who a community values. On my daily walk with my dog I often pass a parking sign covered in flowers and surrounded by candles, a makeshift memorial to a victim of gun violence in Midtown Kingston. We are already doing the work in real time to reconsider who is worthy to be remembered in our community, we just need to deepen that work and make it permanent. It's time to acknowledge our own complicity in memorializing white supremacy, and take down our racist monuments as well.
Frances Cathryn created the Kingston Monument Project to remove the statues in Academy Green and start a conversation about our public spaces. She is an editor, museum worker, and community organizer who fights to re-contextualize stories as they’ve been told to us. Her work confronting racist histories and the myth of neutrality in museums helped her start wip projects, where she looks forward to building something different.