One of the best things about living in the Virgin Islands is that you are experiencing history every day. We are surrounded by it, but yet how much of it do we know and recognize? How much is hidden and left out?
Throughout history humans have built statues of or named buildings, streets and places after great people (usually men) for the purpose of not only documenting a moment or time in history, but also as a testament to someone who should be revered and emulated. Unfortunately, the criteria for being immortalized is extremely subjective and heavily skewed in favor of the dominant culture of the time. This often means that monuments get used to rewrite history as much as document it.
So, when it comes to tearing down statues or changing things named for racists, slavers and perpetrators of genocide, my reaction is: Tear them all down. Change the names. Why should these people or these horrific periods of history hold any place of honor?
On St. Thomas, some consider Emancipation Garden, where news of our fiery victory for Emancipation in 1848 was shared to the people, to be sacred ground. Right at the heart of this area is a bust statue to Danish ruler and oppressor of the people, King Christian IX. There is a petition now circulating to remove the statue in favor of one devoted to native son, hero and freedom fighter Moses “General Buddhoe” Gottlieb.
How can you argue with that? It’s pretty hard to do, but someone will try. Do we have to know everything about Buddhoe the man to be sure he’s worthy? Does he have to be a perfect man to be a great hero? For some reason, our heroes have to be. If he isn’t, does it matter when his great act was so transformative?
What about the fact that very few historical changes are made by one person? For every General Buddhoe there are thousands of unnamed, unsung members of the masses who stood beside and behind them, also ready to fight and die. For every martyr who falls, there are thousands more inspired to take up the fight until victory is won. Where are their statues? How do we honor their names?
When I pass through Post Office Square, I don’t always notice the three busts of Outstanding Virgin Islanders — Rothschild Francis, Edith Williams and Jose Antonio Jarvis — that are there looking down on passersby. One day, a friend pointed out to me that all their statues are positioned with their heads bowed and it made me wonder: Who gets to decide what these statues look like? How we are depicted is just as important as being present at all. Maybe we don’t notice them because maybe they were meant to look diminutive.
The writer of the petition points out that it is vital to “reclaim our history and understand the weight and strength of what it means to be a Virgin Islander.” I couldn’t agree more. They point out that there are ways we can display our entire history, but places of “reverence and esteem” should be reserved for the best of our history. I totally agree.
Inevitably someone comes with the slippery slope defense. Where do we draw the line? Maybe we don’t. Maybe statues of people are problematic. Maybe it all has to go and be replaced with something more universal. Maybe how we honor our ancestors needs to be more active.
Why not fill our common spaces with more works by local artists inspired by the lives of our greatest citizens? Why not have more natural spaces, edible gardens and meditation spots representing our ancestral heroes and heroines? We can build more museums and libraries and archives so that people can learn the truth and depth of our human history and engage with ancestral artifacts. We can produce works in a variety of mediums that tell what happened not just from the side of the victor or the loser, but the observer.
We can interview our culture-bearers and historical figures while they live so we can document them in their own words. Why not name our streets, buildings and shared spaces after feelings and words that inspire us to be our best in all the languages of our ancestors?
What has always been doesn’t have to always be. Statues honoring historical figures are great, but maybe it’s time to save them for well-curated museums and use our common spaces for more communal expressions.
— Mariel Blake is a Daily News columnist. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.