A day at the racist museum

How should we deal with the irredeemably racist monuments to white supremacy that crowd our cities?

Roosevelt statue - AP photo
Visitors to the American Museum of Natural History look at a statue of Theodore Roosevelt, which includes a man in Native American headdress on November 17, 2017 in New York [File: AP]

On a sweltering August day, when we received daily warnings from our city authorities about the dangerous heat coming our way, I took my younger children to the American Museum of Natural History in New York. My children wanted to see a spectacular show in its planetarium called “Dark Universe” and I was looking for a cool place to entertain their fancies. 

Upon arriving, I remembered that to get in, we will have to navigate around a rather racist statue of Theodore Roosevelt, showing the late president on horseback flanked by an African-American and a Native American standing below on each side.

At least since the late 1990s this monument has been the subject of critical reflection in the US, marking the patent racial hierarchy it stages and celebrates. Following the removal of the Robert E Lee statue in New Orleans in 2017, all such monuments to the long history of racism in the US have become subjects of renewed examination. 

This Roosevelt statue was also defaced by a group of activists in 2017. In July 2019, a special exhibition was opened at this very museum about its racist history.

As we stood in line to get ticket for the planetarium show, paramount on my mind was not just the racist evidence at the entrance of the museum but the vast universe awaiting us at one of its interior halls.

We were there to see a show celebrating “the pivotal discoveries that have led us to greater knowledge of the structure and history of the universe and our place in it – and to new frontiers for exploration.” Paradoxically, and making a mockery of that racist statue at the entrance, the narrator of the show is Neil deGrasse Tyson – a distinguished African-American astrophysicist.   

I marvelled at the stars and listened to Tyson telling us of the expanding universe – and I remembered the Persian poet Sa’di. There is a story in his book Golestan (1258) in which an astronomer comes home and finds a young man in the compromising company of his wife. He gets angry and start screaming and hitting the man. A crowd gathers and people find out the reason for the commotion. Someone in the crowd turns to the astronomer and says: “What in the world could you know about the secrets of the heavens when you have no clue what is happening in your own home?”

The US today finds itself in a similar situation. It invests massively in space exploration and even plans for a space army, as Donald Trump has announced, and yet the terrors of the most recalcitrant barbarism on this Earth is still unfolding on its territory and along its borders. There is a vast and perhaps irreconcilable discrepancy between the expansive horizons of the unknown we wish to explore, and the shrinking history of the troubling truth we wish to forget.   

What is to be done?

This vile statue is a monument to the bloody history of genocide and slavery in the United States and that man riding that horse arrogantly is the very evidence, the very sign and symbol, of the white supremacy that has ruled this land for centuries.

So what are we to think of such statues, imposing themselves on us even on our way to think ourselves in a much larger universe?

The position of the museum itself on the statue is, of course, entirely self-referential. At the foot of the statue, I saw a sign that read: 

Addressing the statue: This statue was unveiled to the public in 1940 as part of a larger New York State memorial to former NY governor and US President Theodore Roosevelt. Today, some see the statue as a heroic group; others, as a symbol of racial hierarchy. You can learn more about this statue inside the museum and at amnh.org/addressing-the-statue.

In a July article published by the the New York Times the museum’s president, Ellen V Futter was quoted as saying: “Providing context is exactly the role of a science-based institution.” According to the piece, “The Natural History Museum has already taken a second look at other displays in the same light: The Old New York diorama that includes a stereotypical depiction of Lenape leaders, for example, now has captions on the glass explaining why the display is offensive.”

There is no legislating what should or would happen to these irredeemably racist monuments to the indignities of white supremacy.  Some are moved to vandalising them in anger, others insist on celebrating them precisely for the same reasons that others want to bring them down. But ignoring or altogether removing them from public spaces wipes out the evidence of past and present crimes and an opportunity for future generations to learn from them.  

The task at hand, I thought, should not be relegated to invested curators of any museum who make their living by inoculating and keeping such monuments immune from critical encounters. The task instead is with parents and educators to bring their students here around this very statue to remember a reality that still plagues this nation.

After all, we live in a time – the time of Donald Trump – when we must leave a critical record for our posterity.

Civilisation and barbarism

It is the anonymity of those two figures of a Native American and an African-American that today haunts us more than the mounted racism of the known president. That anonymity today implicates us all – not just the long and bloody history of genocide and slavery but the equally painful history of mass migrations that has today come full circle on the US-Mexican border. Donald Trump is the walking embodiment of that mounted statue.

While the statue marks and celebrates the centuries-long genocide of Native Americans and equally barbaric history of African slavery, the cruelty that the Trump presidency is perpetrating at the US-Mexican border extends the terror of that history to other nations that have sought refuge in this land. Generations of immigrants from Asia, Africa, and Latin America, among them Catholics, Jews, and now Muslims, have faced the constant terror of white supremacy that has remained definitive to this country.  

In the midst of this history, and as it assumes ever more cruel manifestations, the fact is there is no clean and clear space – neither in the US nor anywhere else. There are museums devoted to the history of slavery from Doha to Liverpool to Washington DC, while modern-day versions of slavery are evident all around the globe. In New York, we have a museum examining the history of a racist statue at its own front door while a president is ruling unabashedly with the ghastliest racist convictions.

Every single space we walk into is always already morally implicated. We must walk ourselves and our children down a path that is deeply afflicted by traces of human misery on one side and yet blessed with sublime promises of salvation on the other. 

As we left the museum, my mind was drawn to the words of German-Jewish philosopher Walter Benjamin in his Theses on the Philosophy of History: “There is no document of civilisation which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.”

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.