Monuments–the cure for what ails you

I ran across yet another story about an effort to build a national monument commemorating a forgotten group—in this case, black soldiers of the Revolutionary War.  Some folks are trying to drum up support for a memorial in Washington, D.C., along with the estimated $14 million it’ll take to construct it.

This is another one of those cases where I’m torn between my support for the ends and my qualms about the means.  I’m all for imprinting the Revolution on the national psyche and emphasizing the contributions of black Americans to that struggle.  Yet I can’t help but wonder whether a monument is the best way to go about doing it.  If you can raise $14 million for a memorial, then is it feasible to raise the same amount for, say, a museum and research center where people can learn about—and not just commemorate—these men?  Or to endow a book or dissertation prize to encourage research about them?

One supporter of the monument stresses the need to help people understand the past, and claims that the project might even help contribute to racial reconciliation.  I think it’s important to keep in mind that monuments have severe interpretive limitations. There’s only so much information you can convey with a piece of public sculpture, other than the fact that the thing being commemorated existed.  I hope a monument to black Rev War soldiers would remind Americans of the sacrifices these men made, but I suspect that this would be about all it could do.

I don’t say any of this to belittle the effort to create the memorial.  In fact, I’d like to see the thing completed; if any group deserves a national monument, surely it would be these men who put it all on the line on behalf of ideals whose benefits they couldn’t fully enjoy simply because of their skin color.  But I hope that this effort, and others like it, doesn’t get us thinking that monuments will accomplish the difficult work of teaching history or the even more difficult work of exorcising our collective demons.

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Filed under American Revolution, History and Memory

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