On the Emancipation Memorial

On a street in a strange city in this foreign land, we see a statue of two men. 

One is standing, and fully clothed.  The other is crouching at the feet of the standing man, and nearly naked.

The crouching man has one knee on the ground. The other knee is up, his weight on the foot below it. His head is raised, and he is looking into the distance. There are shackles on his wrists, but the chain between them is broken. The knuckles of his left hand are on the ground, like those of a sprinter waiting for the gun; the right hand is clenched and slightly raised.  

He looks like he is about to rise. 

The standing man clearly has powers that the crouching man does not. The hand he extends appears to have been swept from right to left to right over the other man’s head, and now its slightly extended index finger seems to point in the opposite direction to the crouching man’s gaze. There’s a magic to that hand, as if it has broken the shackles at one stroke, and bestowed on the crouching man the energy we see in his intent gaze, in his raised knee, his raised hand, his raised head – the very energy to rise.

Though we are strangers here, it is not difficult to read this statue. We are familiar with domination, and the release from it. Who on this planet isn’t? 

The standing man has freed the crouching man, who had been bent and stripped and shackled. It is a moment, the moment after magic has happened, and in that moment the standing man is – there is really no other word – superior to the crouching man. He is, in the little world of the statue, supreme. The crouching man could not have broken his shackles on his own. He needed freeing. He needed raising. He needed to be ‘lifted up.’ He needed the standing man. 

Or did he?

It’s a truism that Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation did not end legal slavery in the U.S.  The Thirteenth Amendment, which Lincoln also had a hand in, did that. It’s also arguable that the Proclamation did not, in fact, free anybody, since it only applied to states in rebellion, where Lincoln’s authority was not recognized – at least not until the Union army arrived. 

And we know neither emancipation nor abolition ended racial oppression. The failure of Reconstruction, the imposition of Jim Crow, anti-black terrorism, lynchings, massacres, red-lining, job discrimination, mass incarceration – 155  years have shown how limited the magic in the standing man’s hand was. The chain of legal slavery, however it was broken, was not the only chain on the crouching man, and the forges have been hammering out new ones ever since. And it has been black people fighting for themselves who have broken some of these new chains in the last 50 years. 

But the failure of Emancipation to emancipate is not the problem with the Emancipation Memorial. 

The problem with the Emancipation Memorial is the notion that black people needed freeing.

Ibram X. Kendi, in his book “Stamped from the Beginning,” identifies a persistent strain of thought that insists that, either because of natural inferiority or because of their centuries of enslavement, black people were somehow weak or damaged and thus in need of ‘uplift’ – either by themselves, or by white people. Kendi traces this idea through the decades, from abolitionists like William Lloyd Garrison, through early 20th century black leaders like W.E.B Dubois, to mid-20th century policy makers like Daniel Patrick Moynihan. 

The Emancipation Memorial is a monument to the need for uplift. That is, really, the point of it. The crouching man needs the standing man to help him up. But consider this: 

Black people did not need to be freed. White people needed to be denied the power to enslave black people. 

Black people were not bent and embruted (that is what the crouching man’s nakedness represents) by slavery. Black people survived slavery.  They resisted it. They fought against it. They ran from it. They helped each other run from it. They got through it. They have been getting through all of the other forms of oppression that have arisen since. 

What would that Memorial look like? 

This is not just a semantic difference. It is a perceptual one, and it is fundamental. What do we white people see when we look at Black people, and imagine their history? Do we see them? Or do we see ourselves first?

‘White supremacy’ is a fraught term. White people like me bridle at it being applied beyond the limited sphere of torch-wielding morons and long-dead Confederates.  When someone writes that the Emancipation Memorial is a “monument to White Supremacy,” I do not like it. I feel instantly that it must be wrong. But is it? 

The Memorial makes Black freedom white peoples’ accomplishment and Black peoples’ problem. It hides the role of white people oppressing Black people, celebrates the role of white people in freeing Black people, emphasizes the way slavery ‘reduced’ Black people, and hides the ways in which Black people refused to be reduced.  At every turn, ‘good’ white agency is emphasized, ‘bad’ white agency is hidden, and Black agency is denied entirely – or at least deferred indefinitely, until that other knee comes off the ground.

‘White supremacy’ seems a fair adumbration of those turns. White people do; black people are done to, for good or ill. It is the good things white people do that are of supreme importance.

So is the Emancipation Memorial on a par with, say, the Cornerstone Speech? No. The latter presents white supremacy as an ideology, as a matter of principle, as an unchangeable fact, built into the physical and moral order of the world. The former represents it (truthfully or not) as a contingent and limited reality, an eradicable evil, created by history, changeable by history. The broken chain is the first step in that change. The Memorial says,  this is how things have been – not how things must always be.

But that representation of a contingent, historical white supremacy is wrong, not just wrong now, because the history has not ended, but wrong then, because it is half blind,  rendering ‘supreme’ one part of a complex reality (white people acting to end slavery and ‘lift up’ black people), and ignoring others (black people fighting, black people running, and white people continuing to oppress). It casts that blindness in bronze, makes it endure, and in the process, lulls us white people toward a too-comfortable satisfaction with our past and our present.

Emancipation was a watershed, a fundamental change, and an act of political courage (tardy or not) on the part of Abraham Lincoln, It was justly celebrated in 1863, and in 1876, and is justly celebrated now. There was, and is, good reason to be grateful to Abraham Lincoln for being Abraham Lincoln, good reason to study him, and I think, good reason to honor him with monuments and statues.  There is also good reason to criticize him, as Frederick Douglass knew and said at the Memorial’s dedication, where he gave the seminal gloss on the “Lincoln problem.” 

But the Emancipation Memorial, with its portrayal of the standing and the crouched, is a poor representation of Emancipation, of slavery, of Lincoln, and of Black people. It forgets what needs remembering, and renders in unchanging bronze a deep perception that desperately needs changing – that Black people have needed, and continue to need, “lifting up” by white people, and that when that is done, the crouching man will be standing next to the standing man, wearing a similar suit, and looking very much like him.

emancipation memorial

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