What do the United States, South Africa, and Ukraine have in common? During the last decade they have each grappled with the question of remaking public space to comport with a new political reality. A reality in which “people power” toppled authoritarian and illiberal governments that exploited and oppressed those who were different – be it race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, etcetera. While each state’s strategy to remake their public spaces is unique, especially in terms of when they chose to remake space and time and how they used law to achieve such ends; all are essentially creating new societal trajectories that reconfigure the past, present, and future.
I write this from Cairo, just after a trip to South Africa. While in KwaZulu-Natal, I listened to a podcast on the dismantling of Lenin statues and renaming of cities in Ukraine. Hearing that story in a country where the reclamation of space via renaming streets and naming metropolitan areas has proven contentious during extraordinary moments (protests and bureaucratic inertia) and ordinary moments (communicating with locals who refuse to take on new names) rekindled my anxiety about acts that are meant to quickly undo the past. While the historical construction of space is inextricably linked to the construction of race; the remaking of space, especially within one’s lifetime can easily disrupt the various memories and tactics communities used to survive. After these experiences it is hard not to see my own country through the lens of post-communist and post-apartheid realities. Even though the events that led to Charlottesville are further removed, occurring some 60 to 150 years ago, the reactions to remaking space and time are no less visceral. One would think that with more time, the question of keeping or removing the statues would be easier to ask and to answer, but it is not. Because for those who grew up knowing that Klan rallies were just a part of life, there are still many other symbols of America that persist and serve to elevate our civilization, but are just as responsible for the degradation of slaves, indigenous, the poor, and women. And such symbols will endure once the media’s bright lights are turned off. While the removal of these statues will assuage the ghosts of Reconstruction, there is something else we should be asking ourselves: can we remake public space and monuments that capture the complexity of our current political realities and will they survive the scrutiny of future citizens? A refashioning that does not romanticize current achievements while concealing the trauma, exploitation, and violence that engendered these achievements, especially given the dark underbelly of America’s continuing success.
One reason for my skepticism is that it has taken so long to directly confront the images and objects of the Confederacy. Trust me, when you have to reckon with a member of an Arabic heavy metal band wearing a patch of the Confederate flag on his torn jean jacket, it is truly mind numbing to square that circle in this moment. Is it an act of personal aesthetics that mimics one’s heroes or a covert sign of camaraderie? While I will never know the answer, what becomes more curious is how did that image and object arrive in Cairo; and most likely it was delivered by the internet. While we are often focused on the internet as a platform that facilitates mobilization in the real world; it also allows for critical and creative engagements that empower and engender a sense of belonging. Sentiments that are necessary to directly confront the legacy of colonialism and remake the world in one’s own likeness. But no matter how many virtual worlds comfort us, the internet’s agility cannot be readily translated to the physical world. Charlottesville reminds us that we still live with others, collaborate with others, fight with others to make and give access to our world. But the inherent limitations of the physical world force us into a false dichotomy – either we keep or remove the statues. Yes the statues need to come down, but a more subversive action would be to repurpose the statues and spaces that express the complexities we confront in discussions about trauma, triumph, and re-imaginations that are fueling the recovery of a more comprehensive history of America. There is the potential for monuments to grapple with collective healing, but there is also the potential to manipulate space and once again honor the stewards of our shameful past and present. This removal, like so many other acts within the “culture wars” cannot alone give us what we want: an end to systematic racism, misogyny, and homophobia and prevent similar types of exploitation via epistemic violence that happen during the drive for a better life. A life built, in part, on the political machinations to maintain our freedom to consume and be consumed. Is it at all ironic that we are likely communicating about Charlottesville via devices that come from environmental degradation and labor exploitation of other parts of the world? That many of the products we consume are the result of a subjugation of labor akin to slavery, whose legacy we are trying so desperately to dismantle? And what will the future say about the monuments we erect today at a moment when violence, inequality, and epistemic terror persist despite the proclamations of wanting to change this world. . . of creating knowledge to to change the world. . . .of creating industries to change the world, but only consuming politics as entertainment when we fail.
Do I have the answers with how to resolve this tension, no, sadly for the moment I only come armed with philosophical and theoretical explanations that can bear witness to such exploitation. But in bearing witness it is becoming clear that if we truly want to remake our world, if we truly want to stop repeating the phrase “never again” then we need to integrate our political and cultural mobilizations in an effort to remake space for the ones we are waiting for.