Monuments and plaques do not necessarily represent ‘history’ so much as a particular interpretation of certain events or aspects of a person’s life. A recent episode of 99% Invisible, originally produced for The Memory Palace, explores what should be on the plaque for Nathan Bedford Forrest. Forrest was a lieutenant general in the Confederate Army who built a fortune off the labour of slaves and who was, allegedly, the first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. The episode is noteworthy for outlining the rationale for creating Forrest’s monument in the first place, the significance of reinterring Forrest’s remains, and for what should go into a plaque that is dedicated to his place in the world, today.
In listening to the episode it’s shocking just how the monument’s creation and erection were laden with racist overtones, and the episode is instructive in explaining what these monuments were (and are) meant to do: act as assertions of white supremacy in increasingly multicultural and diverse societies. The history of such monument is not linked to the events or persons for which they were erected, but in the rationales for which they were created and erected. Their history is inexorably linked the history of white supremacy, and this is a history that we can safely stop lionizing. Rather that destroying such monuments, however, they should be relegated to open museums and parks, which can be used to remind us of the horrors and inequalities associated with past ideological positions that we now acknowledge as being harmful and dangerous to the members of our societies.