"More than machinery, we need humanity."
Editorial Note: In the aftermath of the white supremacist gathering in Charlottesville, where an anti-fascist protestor was murdered, much of the debate turned to the topic of statues. Specifically: was it right for certain statues to be taken down? In the midst of these discussions, the statues’ defenders often framed themselves as the stalwart protectors of history – while those calling for the removal of the statues were quick to point out that the statues already represented a warping of history. Frustrated by the way in which statues were being discussed as related to history, one historian (me) took to Twitter and let loose with a satirical thread about statues and history. Surprisingly, the thread wound up being widely circulated. The Chronicle of Higher Education commissioned an article version of that tweet thread, and though it was contractually kept behind a paywall and exclusive rights for 30 days…the rights have now reverted to the author. And thus, without further ado…
Statues or it Didn’t Happen
Sad to see the history and culture of our great country being ripped apart with the removal of our beautiful statues and monuments. You…..
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 17, 2017
There are few sources of information as essential to historians as statues. After all, without statues how are we to know anything about the past? The phrase “prehistory” derives from a German word meaning “periods of history that didn’t leave statues behind so who knows what happened?”
A statue can tell the historian that something happened, where it happened, and how the individuals involved looked while it was happening. Without statues to point to as clear, incontrovertible evidence, historians would find themselves faced with an impossible task. Thanks to statues, historians can confidently say that the two overarching themes of history are people standing in place and people riding on horses.
I remember clearly my first day working toward my Ph.D. (though, admittedly, there is no statue to commemorate it). My cohort mates and I sat in the seminar room awaiting the professor who would introduce us to the real work of doing history. I recall our thrill as the professor traipsed into the room in a dusty smock, hammer and chisel in hand, and declared in a booming voice, “Without statues there would be no history, and without history there would be no statues.” One classmate dared to ask, “But what about books and archival material?” That student did not last long in the department.
Statues are the solid object around which any historian’s career is constructed. This is a lesson that is hammered home week after week in graduate departments across the world. Well do I remember a paper on which I had worked for a year being rejected by a conference. The paper’s flaw? I had failed to cite a single statue.
More recently, I had a meeting with my adviser, during which she advised me to think of a different dissertation topic, because “there isn’t a statue of this.”
Of course, there are some who ask: “Which came first, the history or the statue?” But those people are philosophers and you should probably ignore them.
And there are some who claim that statues are not ideal sources for historical information; they argue that statues present a valorized, one-sided account of history. This is obviously ridiculous. Everybody knows that statues allow you to see all sides, and that is because statues are three-dimensional objects. They permit an assortment of perspectives: You can look at a statue from the front, from the back, from the left side, from the right side, from below, from above, and from a variety of other angles.
Statues are history in its purest form. If a statue comes down it becomes impossible to know what happened in the past. Were it not for statues, how else would we know of the existence and significant achievements of important historical figures like Martin Luther King Jr., Abraham Lincoln, Joan of Arc, or Rocky?
As historians, we must recommit ourselves to the defense of statues and champion a return to “statue-based” education, for skills like “looking at statues” have been devalued for too long.
And if a statue must go, we must do the next best thing: Build a statue of that other statue coming down lest the event be forgotten.
Editorial Note 2: Thank you to everyone over at The Chronicle who helped edit or recommend changes on the above piece. Also, for those who missed it, here’s the original Tweet (followed by the whole thread as a “Moment”)…
As a historian the hardest part of my job is that I am constantly building statues, as statues are the only way people learn about history.
— LibrarianShipwreck (@libshipwreck) August 17, 2017
I’m still chuckling after reading this. What a gas!
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