The subjugation of other races by those of us of European origin is our nation's original sin. That sin began soon after our arrival on this continent, was written into our founding documents, and has been a tragic part of our history to this day.
Recognition of that history and its many monstrous cruelties is essential to moving our nation forward and to healing so many wounds.
If we wish to live in harmony and equality with people of other races, we should not maintain paternalistic statues that depict Native Americans and African Americans in subordinate roles.
The statue of Theodore Roosevelt, my great-grandfather, in front of New York's Museum of Natural History, does so, and.
Even more clearly, we should certainly not maintain monuments that memorialize individuals who fought to keep in slavery the same people with whom we now say we wish to live in harmony and equality.
When some argue that we should not "erase our past" and that such statues can be invitations to examine and civilly discuss complex issues, that is disingenuous. That is what books and classrooms are for, not monuments. Monuments are designed to honor people, and to keep those honorees and what they stood for alive in our collective memory.
The fact that over a century-and-a-half after the Civil War was fought, our nation is still littered with monuments to soldiers who fought to maintain slavery, says a great deal about the work our country has refused to do. As was intended when they were built, these memorials represent a clear insult to Black Americans – a form of racial taunting – as does any remaining use of the flag under which these soldiers fought.
- ("Sunday Morning," 9/10/17)
It is also disingenuous to say that the protesters demanding removal of these statues should now step back and allow for civil dialogue about these issues. We who could have fostered such dialogue have failed to do so for generations; we are now being called out on that failure, as we should be.
As president of St. John's College in Santa Fe, New Mexico, which also has a campus in Annapolis, Maryland, I acknowledge that we have work to do on these issues that we have long neglected.
We are, all of us in this country, bound together by the tragedy of racial subjugation and continuing violence and multiple other affronts to Black Americans and other people of color. Those of us with power and influence who say we wish to do better are diminished by our stalled, failed, and woefully insufficient attempts to actually do so. Those with power and influence who will not even acknowledge these wrongs are an embarrassment to the nation.
If we wish to allow for historical nuance – and I do – to continue to recognize Washington and Jefferson and Theodore Roosevelt for their very real accomplishments, while also allowing that they (like so many of us) were complicit in our nation's original and ongoing sin, we must start by admitting that we have failed to acknowledge the depth of that sin, and immediately remove all memorials and statues honoring those who fought a Civil War or otherwise worked to perpetuate that sin.
And then, we should get on with the desperately needed work of uprooting systemic racism wherever it is found.
For more info
- Mark Roosevelt, president, St. John's College, Santa Fe, N.M.
- President Theodore Roosevelt (whitehouse.gov)
- Theodore Roosevelt Association
Story produced by Amy Wall. Editor: Carol Ross.
- ("Sunday Morning")
- Teddy Roosevelt's retreat ("Sunday Morning")
- ("CBS Evening News)
- Doris Kearns Goodwin: Roosevelt, Taft and the GOP split ("Sunday Morning")
- Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin on "cutting the past some slack" ("Sunday Morning")
- Book excerpt: Teddy Roosevelt's triumphal return
- Filmmaker Ken Burns' intimate look at the Roosevelt family ("CBS This Morning")