My husband graduated from a high school named for Sir John A. Macdonald, so when we saw last week that many were calling for the many, many schools similarly named to change their names in recognition of the harm Macdonald and his policies did to First Nations people, it sparked an interesting conversation.
G and I had been largely in agreement on the topic of confederate monuments this summer, but this hit him a little closer to home. Ultimately, we agreed that we'd rather see more recognition of the contributions that have often been erased (women, people of color) than continuing to recognize the complicated contributions of people who did massive harm to others, but I acknowledge that it's never simple to decide who is worthy of honor. I'm reminded, again, of the weirdo third grader who wrote her "heroes" essay about how everybody's got skeletons in their closet (the weirdo was me. The essays were displayed for open house night. Mine was in the corner).
What it comes down to, though, is this: History is by about and for people, not monuments. I have a link below to an episode of The Memory Palace in which the major theme is that memorials are not memories; they say things not about the people they depict, but about the people who erect the monument. They say things about who we are and what we value. Most of the way we approach history is done in this way; most of the history we teach to children is the Approved Narrative version of things that happened, tailored to our culture. I've mentioned before the jarring experience of studying the Canadian narrative of the late 1700s when I was preparing for my citizenship exam, and that's a tidy little example.
Taking down monuments does not and cannot change the past. The past is done, with all its harms and majesties. Changing what we memorialize can only change what we say about ourselves, now and in the future. The story we tell about our pasts is neither inviolable nor sacred; it is a story, one we write about ourselves and teach to our children. If we teach them "and then, America decided it no longer wanted to outright honor the racism in our history," that's a new part of the story. We decide who we are based on what we say about ourselves; be cautious. Be intentional. Be open to change.
A newsletter on life, current events, media & culture, and living in wonder amidst it all.