What to do with monumental attitude

Category:  News
Wednesday, September 27th, 2017 at 6:19 PM
What to do with monumental attitude by Hannah McDonald
Photo: Hannah McDonald

On Monday night at Edinboro University, this strange reality was confronted, along with many others, during the panel discussion, "What To Do With a Man on Horseback: After Charlottesville.”

In Germany today, if any individual performs the heil salute, they’re on grounds for arrest. On the east coast of the U.S., the comparable confederate flag is often a sign of history and heritage. Across the United States south, these flags — symbols of the war that split the nation for a time — are daily sightings for some.

The lecture room in Compton Hall was filled and extra seating was necessary. The four panel speakers each had seven minutes to answer this question before the floor would be opened for discussion and Q&A. Each had a different view on the topic. Dr. Jerra Jenrette, a history professor at the university, led the panel.

Michelle Vitali spoke first, addressing the raised question: “Do we keep monuments of oppression in place and use them as teaching tools, remove them to museums or other locations, or destroy them completely?”

Vitali is a professor of art at Edinboro University. Not only did Vitali study at the New York Academy of Art, she also studied abroad in Italy. Vitali is known for her political activism and her love, understanding and respect of art.

To answer the question that prompts this specific discussion, one must understand art. Art was made with an intention for an audience. Fine arts are made intended for the ages. Monuments, on the other hand, are usually commissioned and not usually created to respond to cultural and market trends.

“Actual artwork about war is very different than monuments,” Vitali said.

Talking about the intention of art, Vitali continued: “Monuments do none of the above. They are created after the fact...I would [argue] there is a political subtext.”

She continued to mention that monuments are not innovative or unique. They do not raise questions, ergo they are not art, she explained.

During her seven minutes, Vitali made it clear she believes the monuments should not be left standing as they are. Continuing, she said confederate monuments of the south are meant to intimidate and encourage former slaves, and their families, to remain in the places that white supremacy has made for them. They went up with a political purpose and the fact that they are honoring traitors to the U.S. is ignored.

With the option of leaving them as-is off the table in Vitali’s mind, there are three more options. They can be put in museums, destroyed or turned into fine art.

To do the latter, they would have to be moved, altered or placed in a provocative juxtaposition. What should be done with the monuments is a re- contextualization, Vitali concluded. 

Dr. Lenore Barbian, an anthropologist and founding member of the Edinboro Forensic Science Institute, agreed.

Barbian has a history in museums and their functionality, so she spoke from the perspective of those institutions.

She was taught from the anthropological point of view that nothing should be destroyed. Instead, it should be preserved for the future, no matter how painful the past of the objects was. For Barbian, these objects should be used to teach, and should be saved for the future.

Yet, if the monuments in question were removed and placed in museums, there is seldom chance they would ever see a museum floor, Barbian continued. This is because of two factors: first, museums simply do not have the space for them. In general, museums are only able to display 1 percent of their collection at any given time. Second, even if the confederate monuments had space to be displayed, the message they send may be negative. Museums do not have a history of dealing well with controversial issues, Barbian shared.

“There isn’t an easy answer,” she said.

Since the museum is not the optimal place for the monuments, Barbian entertains the idea of leaving them where they are but changing the message around them, from one of hate to one of understanding a difficult past. She agrees that the confederate monuments should be re-contextualized or re-branded.

“This is an ongoing process,” Barbian said. “Rebranding or re-contextualizing does not happen overnight.”

She continued: “This is part of our culture and it doesn’t change easily...but it does change because people decide to change it.”

Lewis Brownlee, an instructor for middle and secondary education at Edinboro, was also on the panel. A Georgia native, Brownlee lived in Phoenix for 13 years and worked as an engineer and high school educator at different points. His nontraditional education path, his experience as a black American, and his work as the Frederick Douglass scholar, all gave him background for his opinion on the subject.

When deciding if the confederate monuments should be left alone, destroyed or repurposed, Brownlee said one should think of those who died at the hands of slavery and those who worked to end the system of oppression that plagued the U.S. for over 200 years.

He believes they should be destroyed to honor those who died at the hands of the confederate soldiers and generals that the monuments represent and depict.

“I value people more than I value statues,” Brownlee said. “Slavery ended a long time ago, but oppression is still relevant,” he continued.

The final panel speaker was Dr. Umeme Sabubu. He has presented at more conferences than one can list in a timely manner, Jenrette said, while introducing him. In October, Sabubu will be presenting a paper called “Bridging the Gap: Racism and Mental Illness.”

Sabubu titled his seven minute presentation “The Deconstruction of Whiteness and White Supremacy.”

The confederate monuments were primarily erected during the Jim Crow era of the south. In agreement with the statements made by Vitali, Sabubu stressed the point that the monuments were created to represent violence and intimidation in the south.

Charlottesville was not the first place where violence surrounded one of these monuments, Sabubu said. Given that, he believes they should be destroyed immediately. They are images of white supremacy, and solidify his point to the full audience, the anthropology professor tied in a plethora of historic examples.

All members of the panel spoke passionately about their point, but none more so than Sabubu. He did not only discuss the issue of the confederate statues but also brought up Black Lives Matter.

In his eyes the monuments are not the issue, per say, but instead what they represent and the attitude that they instill and propagate.

“Hopefully when you leave this room, you have more knowledge and have a better understanding,” Sabubu said.

All members of the panel had advice for the crowd included in their presentations. Sababu advised the crowd to look inside themselves to find what is not being said or done that is allowing people to act in the ways of hate that were witnessed in Charlottesville.

“Speak the truth. When you see something wrong, say something about it. Have the courage to do that,” Sabubu said.

“I caution you all to think deeply about what it means to be a patriot in this country,” Vitali said in her closing statements.

She continued: “I ask you to consider the symbols of this country and what they stand for...wanting our country to be better is patriotic.”

Unexpectedly, much more was discussed, especially in these closing statements. The discussion had veins of race issues, community support, and what it means to be an American.

Hannah McDonald can be reached at eupnews.spectator@gmail.com.

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