Yes, the Freedmen’s Memorial uses racist imagery. But don’t tear it down.

June 26, 2020

The Freedmen’s Memorial in Washington is not a Confederate monument. It famously exhibits a standing Abraham Lincoln seemingly giving freedom to a kneeling black man naked from the waist up, whose chains are being broken. It was and is a racist image. This is hardly the monument our culture would create today as a memorial of emancipation. But none of us can ultimately have our history or memory pure. Memory is always about the politics of the present, but the righteous present is not always right.


Do not tear down this monument. I fully understand that protests are not forums for complexity; current demonstrations are the results of justifiable passion and outrage. It is reasonable to clear our landscape of public commemoration of the failed, four-year slaveholders’ rebellion to sustain white supremacy known as the Confederacy, even if it doesn’t erase our history. But the Freedmen’s Memorial is another matter. For those contemplating the elimination of this monument, including D.C.’s delegate to Congress, Eleanor Holmes Norton (D), please consider the people who created it and what it meant for their lives in a century not our own. We ought not try to purify their past and present for our needs.

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