America’s Changing Symbols of Heroism

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By Nazarul Islam,  Edited by Adam Rizvi, New York, TIO:   Statues and monuments that in the past, had long honored racist figures, are being boxed up, spray-painted — or beheaded.
These statues have stood for more than a century on some pedestals. Some are cast in bronze, others carved in stone. And all over the world, as protests against racism and police violence have renewed attention on legacies of injustices, people have been asking: Does this statue still need to be here?

The answer from some protesters has been a resounding ‘no’.

In England, a 17th. Century slave trader was dumped into Bristol Harbor. In Antwerp, a Belgian king who brutalized Congo burned and ultimately removed. And in the United States, more than a dozen statues have been toppled, including several Confederate figures. In dozens of more cities, those that still stand have been marked with graffiti, challenged anew with petitions and protests, or scheduled for removal.

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Harbors, piazzas, parks, and city streets unfold past exploits in a palimpsestic document—the stories statues tell, in stone and bronze, are simply bedded down, stratum upon stratum, in the built environment’s haunted unconscious. ‘You walk through a great city,’ wrote Charles Baudelaire in his essay ‘Salon de 1859’, ‘and your eyes are drawn upwards […] for in the public squares, at the corners of crossroads, motionless characters, taller than those who pass by at their feet, relate to you in a silent language high legends of glory, of war, of knowledge, of suffering.

How have these statues impacted our lives? The stone phantom seizes you for a few instants and orders you, in the name of the past, to think of things that are not of this world. This is the divine role of sculpture.

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What do the public statues being toppled across the Bay Area and the rest of the world have in common?
They are the unforgettable figures from history who had supported white supremacy. And all of them are men.

So here’s a timely proposal: Why don’t we replace them with monuments memorializing the heroic women of color, who’ve helped shape our country—USA!
The current protests have given us an opportunity for a deep cultural reckoning about how we want to see ourselves. The monuments that any society erects reflect its values.

Therefore, let’s use this opportunity to address an unjust imbalance.
There are shamefully few statues or monuments honoring California women of color. In part, this is because our state’s memorialists have historically focused on early conquerors, explorers and presidents.
According to a San Francisco analysis about the representation of women on city property, “The United States has less than 400 statues depicting real historic women. Generally, statues tend to portray war heroes or elected officials, who are overwhelmingly Caucasian or White men.

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When women are portrayed in statues, they are often hypersexualized, fictional characters, or a means to carry a metaphor, such as “Lady Liberty.”
The few statues of women that do exist are often chosen, not to honor the contribution that those women made as individuals, but because of their physical beauty or their relationships with powerful men.

One of the very few monuments devoted to a woman in California is a 26-foot-high sculpture of Marilyn Monroe in a low-cut dress and high heels. It’s now on permanent display in Palm Springs— provoking some discussion of objectification of the actress whose life had ended in tragedy.

Likewise, the gorgeous figure atop a pedestal in San Francisco’s Union Square was modeled on a young Alma de Bretteville, who was considered a great beauty at the turn of the last century. Not long after, she became the mistress and eventual wife of the wealthy sugar king Adolph Spreckels.

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Picture Credits : Coachella valley

The statue, in fact, wasn’t really about Alma. It was meant to honor Adm. George Dewey, who had led a key battle in the Spanish-American War. Now, most San Franciscans just call the figure on top of the pedestal, “Big Alma,” as its model became known as in her later years.
Instead of sexy movie stars or paramours of wealthy men perhaps we should start honoring more California women from diverse backgrounds who are not solely defined by the male gaze.

Women, for example, who worked for social justice, created art and literature and led civil rights movements.

Picture credits : Wikimedia commons

San Francisco would be a good place to start. Out of eighty-seven public statues, just two represent real women. The city passed a law about three years ago aimed at increasing the percentage of women honored in this way, but, perhaps predictably, nothing much has changed.

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A much-anticipated competition to honor the writer Maya Angelou with a piece of public art stalled with a disagreement at the City Hall, over which representation to pick. One of the competing artists, Lava Thomas, told The San Francisco Chronicle: “Artists deserve better, women deserve better, and Black women deserve better.”
Yes, they do.

It’s time for us to finally begin honoring Black women and other women of color.
There are plenty of candidates. One is Tien Fuh Wu, a Chinese girl sold by her father as a child servant who ended up working at a brothel in San Francisco. She eventually became a pioneering social worker who advocated tirelessly for decades to help vulnerable girls and women in Chinatown.

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Or perhaps we should consider Bridget “Biddy” Mason, an African American woman born into slavery who bought her freedom, became a successful investor and helped found Los Angeles’ First African Methodist Episcopal Church.
There’s also Ruth Asawa, the sculptor interned with her Japanese American family during World War II and helped create the San Francisco School of the Arts. Or Maxine Hong Kingston, whose 1976 book “The Woman Warrior” broke boundaries in Asian American literature and who remains a towering (and living) figure in California literature.

My own vote would be for a public statue honoring San Francisco’s early gay rights activists Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon, who were among the first same-sex couples to be married in the U.S.

It’s time we look for different heroes — and a different model of heroism — to honor.

Compiled and Curated by Maham Abbasi.

Nazarul Islam

The author is a former Educator, based in Chicago (USA).

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