My film, The Neutral Ground, opens on a scene of frightened white people who cannot let go of statues. It is in New Orleans, Louisiana, and the city council is voting to remove four confederate monuments.
A p a n i c k e d w h i t e woman shouts: ‘If we take down these monuments, where does it stop? Are we going all the way to Washington DC to take down every memorial there?’
To her surprise, the crowd applauds. They couldn’t agree more. To them, this question isn’t a cudgel to end the debate – it is a crowbar to pry it open.
A paper trail documents the Confederacy’s mission to preserve slavery. The American Civil War broke out in after southern states seceded to create a new nation built ‘upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man. That slavery is ... his natural and normal condition.’
The defining aspect of the brief rebellion known as the Confederacy is this: they lost. Badly. Yet these losers are honoured in more than , monuments and memorials that still stand in America.
In the United States, I fear our historical reckoning will end with confederate monuments. The monuments to pioneers, conquistadors and slave-owning presidents still presiding over our landscape mark the exact point at which the conversation stops short.
In New Orleans, Mayor Mitch Landrieu oversaw the removal of four confederate monuments, but he avoided removing the monument to President Andrew Jackson. It still sits in the centre of the city’s historic downtown. While Jackson is credited with saving the city in the Battle of New Orleans during the war of , he was also the architect of the Tra i l o f Tears , a f orced r emoval o f i ndigenous people that killed thousands.
Similarly, Jacksonville, Florida, successfully renamed six schools dedicated to confederate figures, but was unsuccessful in renaming three schools named after colonizers. More t han confederate monuments and memorials have been removed in the US since the
CJ Hunt applauds the toppling of statues of slave owners and colonizers but wonders where our monumental reckoning will end killing of George Floyd. Yet, I am writing these words just steps away from a Christopher Columbus monument that still towers over New York City.
The conflict at the heart of every monument removal is this: how do we talk about atrocities that were not crimes against the nation, but rather crimes that built the nation?
It is easy to condemn the Confederacy. Their rebellion failed. But what happens when the bad guys win, build an empire and rebrand their crimes as the glorious origin story of a nation?
Across the former colonial holdings we know as the Americas, communities of colour are not only tugging at this question, they are tossing its broken, bronze body into the harbour.
In Colombia, crowds have recently toppled statues of colonizer and failed navigator Christopher Columbus and his patron Queen Isabella.
In , Colombian protesters removed a monument to Spanish conquistador Sebastián de Belalcázar, who wasn’t an enemy of the state, but rather one of its founders. Belalcázar founded two Colombian cities by killing and enslaving thousands of Misak people. His own triumphant monument was built on top of a Misak religious site, completing the erasure. Similarly, people in Chile removed a figure of conquistador Pedro de Valdivia, who founded their capital city by committing atrocities against the Mapuche people. This July, protests in Canada cut through the nationalist fanfare of Canada Day and pulled down statues of Captain James Cook, Queen Victoria and Elizabeth II. In their place, the crowd left red wooden dresses and little red shoes symbolizing the bodies of indigenous children recently discovered in hundreds of unmarked graves at residential schools in British Columbia and Saskatchewan.
The removal of these statues is not just focused on an original sin, but rather how that sin, unnamed and unaddressed, repeats itself throughout history.
If, as Martin Luther King said in , a riot is the language of the unheard, a monument removal is the language of the erased. When a crowd pulls down a statue of the slave master John McDonogh in New Orleans or the slave trader Edward Colston, they are not driven by anarchy. It is an attempt to pry open a conversation about the past that our present refuses.
At this very moment in Richmond, Virginia, and Bogotá, Colombia, state authorities are rallying around monuments and shouting into megaphones: ‘Those who commit acts of violence will be held accountable.’
To their surprise, the crowd cheers. With a rope around Columbus’s neck, they couldn’t agree more.
These global struggles over colonial monuments reveal a truth that is harder to discern in America’s confederate monument fight: our real reckoning is not with the dark chapters of our nation’s past; it is with the entire premise of the story. CJ Hunt is a biracial comedian, filmmaker and field producer on The Daily Show with Trevor Noah. His documentary, ‘The Neutral Ground’, won a Special Jury Mention at the Tribeca Fest i val