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Before he became among the latest symbols of corporate irresponsibility, Sam Bankman-Fried was a staunch advocate for effective altruism—the debts we owe to future generations.

But what about the debts we owe the past? How should we commemorate events and figures when their legacies are fraught or at best ambiguous?

In terms of memorials, this society is better at tearing down than building up.

The record of recent memorials, statues and monuments is at best mixed. I know no one who’d defend the World War II memorial’s design, with its fascistic monumentality stripped of anything that explains why 420,000 gave their lives and left their families bereft.

I, like many others, find the FDR memorial in Washington singularly uninspiring. As for the Martin Luther King memorials in Washington and Boston, no one would claim that these offer the profound inspiration or prompt the deep reflections the Lincoln or Jefferson Memorials provoke.

Even the Vietnam War memorial, the granite-lined trench with its nearly 60,000 inscribed names, however deeply meaningful to those who lost husbands or wives, brothers or sisters, friends, or sons and daughters, says nothing about why they died. Nor does it recognize the 800,000 boat people, many of whom fought at the U.S. troops’ side, who fled to the United States in the wake of the oppression that the U.S. intervention was, in part, supposed to prevent.

Evasion, avoidance and empty symbolism define these civic monuments.

To be sure, there are recent memorials that do speak loudly and proudly. Take a look Brooklyn’s Shirley Chisholm memorial, with its vibrant, colorful celebration of the Congresswoman’s iconic image.

To my mind, the most powerful and meaningful was Dustin Klein and Alex Criqui’s projection of the images of Black people killed by police, including George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Marcus-David Peters, and activists who fought for equality, such as Harriet Tubman, the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., Frederick Douglass and John Lewis onto Richmond’s Robert E. Lee monument. It would be hard to imagine a more meaningful statement about the relationship between past and present. But this artwork was, of course, only a temporary presence, recoverable now only in photographs.

My own campus, in an extremely modest attempt to grapple with its segregationist past, plans to commemorate the Precursors, the first Black students to integrate the campus.

Nothing better symbolizes the project’s irony than the location of a gallery dedicated to Heman Sweatt, whose lawsuit—Sweatt v. Painter—forced the university’s segregated law school to admit him, only after the state had tried to fund Black students to attend law schools out of state and had built an alternative law school at an HBCU, Texas Southern University in Houston. The location, Painter Hall, is named for the president who led resistance to Sweatt’s admission.

I’ll be curious whether the gallery will explain how Sweatt was required to listen to lectures from an alcove, out of sight of his white professors or classmates, and was ultimate driven to drop out. Nor do I see anything in the current designs to address the segregation of athletics and the fact that no Black athlete played in a Longhorn football game until 1970.

That’s partly why one of my most distinguished UT colleagues argued that the campus’s Confederate statues should have been left standing as a daily reminder of the profound gap between the university’s pretensions to diversity and inclusivity and a base reality where Black representation in the undergraduate student body, about 5 percent, represents a small fraction of the 17 percent of the state’s African American population, and where the campus song is a relic of blackface minstrelsy and its tune comes from the racist precursor of “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad.”

As perhaps you know, the state Legislature is considering a bill that would prohibit classes in African American and Latino/a history from counting toward colleges’ six-credit hour U.S. history requirement. Ignorance, after all, among the most effective ways to ensure a malleable, manipulable public. Those who are trying to mandate historical amnesia are democracy’s true enemies.

Who would have guessed that colorblindness could become yet another form of racism?

In a recent edition of The New York Review of Books, Eric Foner, the towering historian of race in American history, discusses Margaret A. Burnham’s By Hands Now Known, a gut-wrenching account of the over 1,000 Black victims who were murdered under the cover of law, mainly by local police and sheriffs, in the Jim Crow South between 1920 and 1960. Even though you and I are familiar with a few of these acts of racial violence, the Foner review and the book itself literally brought tears to my eyes.

I am generally critical of “doomerism,” the tendency to treat U.S. history as a succession of horrors and abuses. I find such an approach ultimately dispiriting, discouraging and disempowering and believe it contributes to the pessimism, fatalism and negativism that permeate much of today’s youth culture, damaging the young’s mental health and obstructing possibilities for reform.

But I consider Burnham’s history an essential reminder of the acts of everyday violence that undergirded the South’s racial and economic order. This book’s underlying theme is complicity—by the judiciary, the FBI, the Justice Department, the military and successive presidential administrations, Democratic and Republican—and the indifference of white Northerners that made these acts of brutality and murder possible.

Her book brought to my mind the words of Genesis 6: 5-6: “Then the Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. And the Lord was sorry He had made man on the earth.” Don’t those phrases echo the despair, defeatism, melancholy and hopelessness we hear among many of our students?

We fail to memorialize the past at our peril. Monuments, memorials and civic rituals are among the few ways we have to collectively remember: to celebrate and commemorate, surely, but also to acknowledge past wrongs, injuries and crimes.

Memorials and monuments, to my mind, should be tangible ways to consecrate, render hallow the past, to declare certain civic ideals inviolate, to solemnly rededicate ourselves as a people to something higher than individual self-interest.

In 1967, in his toughest and most contentious speech, “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence,” Reverend King quoted Langston Hughes, “that black bard of Harlem”:

O, yes,
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath —
America will be!

Dr. King went on: “It is a sad fact that because of comfort, complacency, a morbid fear of communism and our proneness to adjust to injustice, the Western nations that initiated so much of the revolutionary spirit of the modern world have now become the arch antirevolutionaries … Our only hope today lies in our ability to recapture the revolutionary spirit and go out into a sometimes hostile world declaring eternal hostility to poverty, racism and militarism.”

I know: today those words come across as gross abstractions, as glittering generalities—not, as they were regarded at the time, as a call to arms and a demand for immediate, concerted action.

Were we to view monuments and memorials properly, we’d treat these civic symbols not simply as artistic tributes to specific people or events, but as testaments to the values, ideals, sacrifices and accomplishments (however ambiguous) these people or events represented.

Memorials ought to be spaces for reflection and remembrance, reminders of the past but also as spurs that encourage us to envision and build a better future.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

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