Recently in Iraq, an artist named Laith al-Amari created a unique monument. It was a sculpture of a giant shoe. Located at an orphanage in Tikrit, the monument was meant to commemorate the much-televised throwing of a shoe at former President George W. Bush during a 2008 news conference. The local government later forced the head of the orphanage to remove the sculpture, saying “It did not want to mix politics with children.” Al-Amari objected, insisting his sculpture was not a political work, but a “source of pride for all Iraqis.”
A town council in the Republic of Northern Ireland recently voted to commission another monument— this one to honor five Irish Republican Army bombers who were blown up by their own device in November 1957. The wording on the monument would have noted that it was dedicated to “those in every generation who played their part in the struggle for Irish freedom.” However, the selection was criticized by those opposed to the IRA’s historic tactics of “violence and terror.” Following an uproar, plans for the monument were temporarily shelved.
With those two examples in mind, it is patently naive to suggest that certain monuments are not designed to carry messages both of a memorial and political nature. The two examples also vividly demonstrate how monuments are created not simply to honor the ancestors of their creators, but also to denounce their historic adversaries.
Two Lowcountry monuments — the subject of much debate here in Charleston — serve much the same purpose. Years after slavery ended and the Civil War was fought and lost, we are still debating new monuments intentionally chosen to antagonize segments of our own community. Even if these monuments simultaneously honor noteworthy causes, is there any doubt about the purposeful political messages which they also represent?
Let’s start with Denmark Vesey. I am not convinced that of all of the black freedom figures throughout the history of slavery, Charlestonians could not come up with a less controversial figure to honor with a statue. Harriet Tubman, maybe? How about Frederick Douglass? Those heroic figures do not stir the anger and contempt of modern-day Confederate sympathizers as does Vesey, a slave who plotted a violent and murderous revolt. The Vesey monument therefore delivers more political bang for the buck, and to many, it serves as a meaningful, if not inadequate, rejoinder to those who celebrate Ben Tillman, Confederate flags, and similar memorials given prominence across our state.
Not to be outdone, another segment of Charlestonians now feels secession must be commemorated — because it was such an honorable and proud moment in our state’s history, no doubt. There are several other significant statewide, historic moments that could have been celebrated at a location like Patriots Point, but no other monument would be as likely to exasperate descendants of the Gullah-Geechee Nation. Or if not them, the black Charlestonians that actually complain about current injustices.
Each of the aforementioned monuments suggest a fervent attempt to redress past wrongs (real or perceived) by honoring one’s own people at the unfortunate expense of castigating others. The common hallmark of all these monuments, as with the Confederate flag, is that the proponents of the memorial care more about uplifting their own political agenda than they do about offending others. Even if the real enemies died generations ago, there apparently is still some redeeming benefit in shoving a middle finger in the faces of their descendants.
We in Charleston will benefit from a day when those in power are less preoccupied with rehashing the divisive battles of the past and more concerned with bringing the community together. Maybe we can learn something about civility from our faraway neighbors in Iraq and Northern Ireland.