Don’t ‘better explain’ the Emancipation Memorial. Put up monuments to Black people instead.
By Karen Attiah,
“What I want to see before I die,” Frederick Douglass wrote, “is a monument representing the negro, not couchant on his knees like a four-footed animal, but erect on his feet like a man.”
The fiery abolitionist was expressing, in an 1876 letter to the National Republican newspaper discovered this year, his vexation over the design of a new statue of Abraham Lincoln and a formerly enslaved Black man named Archer Alexander, the last man captured under the Fugitive Slave Act.
The monument, meant to celebrate the Emancipation Proclamation, was funded by enslaved people, but it was designed by a White man, Thomas Ball, and the result was a rendering of Lincoln towering over and looking down at Alexander, crouched and half-naked. Lincoln’s right hand grasps a stack of documents, his left floats over Alexander’s head, as if to bless him and all enslaved Black people with freedom.
Douglass called it a “highly interesting object” in a speech in Washington, D.C., marking the commemoration of the statue. (He clearly had a knack for being diplomatic and dismissive at the same time.) More than 140 years later, the Emancipation Memorial and its replica in Boston have become highly contested objects in the ongoing historical battle for Black liberation in America.
This week, the city of Boston removed the replica of Ball’s statue that had stood in Park Square since 1879. All that remains is the pedestal with the words: “A race set free / and the country at peace/ Lincoln / rests from his labors.” The city said the statue will be held in storage until it can find a new location where it could be “better explained.”
It is good that Boston has removed the statue. But how does one better explain a work that reinforces mistruths about the passivity and inferiority of Black people? How does one soften the erasure of the humanity of Alexander? Lincoln gets praised by name and portrayed as single-handedly setting the Black race free. Where is Alexander’s story? None of his efforts to pursue his own freedom — including a daring escape from slave catchers — was recorded on that pedestal. His name wasn’t even inscribed.
Still, Boston is ahead of Washington, where the original statue remains in Lincoln Park. Plenty of people defend these monuments, of course, and argue that removing them is tantamount to erasing history. But that’s wrong. “Admirable as is the monument by Mr. Ball in Lincoln park, it does not, as it seems to me, tell the whole truth,” Douglass wrote. The unmistakable message of the statues — in their imagery, in their places of honor — serves to erase the humanity and history of non-White peoples.
White supremacy feasts on that kind of erasure. For Black people, unbreakable hope and unspeakable horror have danced side by side since the birth of this nation. In a country that struggles to confront the bloody truth of slavery and racism, challenging statues, flags and monuments can sometimes seem like the only way to force America to reckon with its darkness. At its heart, such a reckoning is not a removal of history but rather a process of refinement, in which we identify and burn away the crude distortions, lies and myths in order to distill the truth of America in its fullness.
This pas de deux between horror and hope is reflected in monuments to Black liberation leaders in Latin America and the Caribbean. When I lived in Curacao, I visited the monument to Tula, an enslaved man who led a 1795 rebellion against Dutch slaveholders. In Cuba, there is a monument to Carlota Lucumi, a Yoruba woman who led a large slave rebellion against the Spanish in 1843. These rebellions were bloody and violent; both Tula and Carlota paid with their lives. The monuments are a reminder that freedom always carries a heavy price.
Where are the monuments to the strength of enslaved individuals in America, and to their efforts to liberate themselves and others? In Virginia, historic sites associated with Nat Turner’s 1831 rebellion, the largest slave revolt in U.S. history, have been left to deteriorate or hidden away from the public. The bloody rebellion nearly led Virginia to abolish slavery, yet the history has been neglected while plantations are romanticized as wedding destinations. It’s all testament to just how steadfastly much of America still refuses to face for the horror of slavery and racism.
“There is room in Lincoln Park for another monument,” Douglass concluded in his 1876 letter. “I throw out this suggestion to the end that it may be taken up and acted upon.”
Act on it we should. There is more than enough room to publicly commemorate the Black people who stood proudly and struggled bravely across this vast land so that we all one day may be free.
Read more: George F. Will: Frederick Douglass, a champion of American individualism Robert W. Lee IV: Robert E. Lee is my ancestor. Take down his statue, and let his cause be lost. Karen Attiah: The evictions crisis is coming. We have barely begun to face it. Karen Attiah: Monuments of white supremacy obscure the history of colonial crimes. That’s why they must come down. Henry Louis Gates Jr. and John Stauffer: Five myths about Frederick Douglass