Editor’s Note: Elizabeth Alexander is a poet, scholar and president of The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation – the largest funder of arts, culture and humanities in the nation. The opinions expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion on CNN.
Last fall, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation launched the Monuments Project, a $250 million initiative to better understand and improve America’s commemorative landscape – the monuments, statues and memorials across the country that tell our collective history. Our goal is to support a broader and fuller expression of America’s many different stories, to tell them more accurately and completely. We made our first grant under this initiative to Monument Lab, a non-profit art and history studio in Philadelphia, to support a detailed study of American monuments and memorials.
Monument Lab’s director, Paul Farber, and his team surveyed almost half a million historic records from every state and US territory. Then, they created a representative study set of nearly 50,000 monuments to examine how our commemorative landscape has grown and changed since the country’s founding.
On Wednesday, Monument Lab released the comprehensive audit of its analysis. The takeaway of this remarkable work is unmistakable and sobering: Too many of our country’s monuments misrepresent our collective history, silence our many different voices, and distort who we are as a nation.
The audit found that our commemorative landscape is overwhelmingly White and male. Of the 50 people most frequently honored by monuments in the study set, 89% were White and 95% were men. There were more monuments to mermaids (22) than to women in Congress (2). Stereotypical and imagined female figures occupy more space than women lawmakers who actually lived and contributed to our history.
Another dominant trend is the prevalence of American monuments that honor war and conquest. One-third of the monuments in the representative study set commemorate warfare, with nearly 6,000 mentions of the Civil War compared with just nine monuments that represent Reconstruction. Only 9% of the monuments in the study set mention veterans.
The story of the United States – as told by our monuments today – is badly misleading and out of balance. For example, 53 monuments in the study set memorialize the killing of White settlers or soldiers by Native Americans. Yet, despite the widespread displacement and extermination of American Indian populations after the arrival of Europeans, only four monuments identified in the study set memorialize the massacre of Native Americans by Whites.
Changing this landscape has never been uncommon. The first recorded removal of a monument in our country – a statue of King George III of England, in New York – took place in 1776, five days after the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Monuments have been going up and coming down ceaselessly ever since. They are not perennial truths rooted in the topography of the United States. They are not 1,000-years-old redwoods, or ancient riverbeds, or mountain ranges that change on a vast geologic time scale.
Peaks like Denali or Mauna Kea are culturally sacred and nationally significant landforms fundamental to our natural world. Mount Rushmore, which commemorates four American presidents in South Dakota, and Stone Mountain, which commemorates three White supremacist Confederate leaders in Georgia, are not. Those two monuments were made to feel as immemorial as if they had been created by plate tectonics. But they are merely people-made artifacts that aim to teach us who is – and who is not – considered worth venerating in our country.
As this audit shows, our existing commemorative landscape does not represent our many different voices, nor does it reflect our remarkable collective history. The most durable monuments in the United States have not endured because they best tell the stories of who we are, but because they are the products of the most financial resources and hegemony in its many forms – racial, ethnic, religious, and gender-based.
The study is powerful evidence that we need to do better.
Now that we have surveyed and analyzed those that currently shape our public spaces, we cannot unlearn what we have learned. We cannot unknow what we now know about how much our monuments misrepresent us. If we are to move toward a more just and equitable future in the United States, our commemorative landscape needs to change.
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Making this change depends on all of us. And so, when you walk outside today, take a few minutes to look around.
What are the markers and memorials that you see?
What are the echoes that you hear?
Which stories are captured on plinths or plaques … and whose voices do you think might be missing?