How to Build a Monument Roxane Gay on racism and the monuments of the world

Cover Image - How to Build a Monument

The world is filled with all kinds of monuments. We've been building them for thousands of years. They stand in our midst for centuries: overlooked in their ubiquity, or magnetizing in their ability to draw us to them.

In this essay, Roxane Gay explores the monuments of the world with regards to racism. What are the monuments of history we cling to, and what kind of monuments – physical, or not – can we all begin to create, which will have a greater impact on us, and last for longer.

Illustration by KaCeyKal!

The Great Pyramid of Giza is as miraculous and majestic as you might imagine, if not more so. It was built with 2.3 million blocks of limestone and granite, reaching far into the sky, a monument to the pharaoh Khufu. I saw other pyramids in and around Cairo that were equally awe-inspiring, constructed in seemingly perfect proportions, still standing after millennia despite desert winds and the blazing sun and millions of visitors, eager to see a wonder of the world. In Luxor, we visited the Valley of the Kings, and descended several stories below ground to see tombs that are still preserved, the walls adorned with elaborate hieroglyphics – resting places for Tutankhamun, Ramesses II, Ramesses III, Amenhotep. The Temple of Hatshepsut stood at the top of a very long staircase, its columns proudly erect, because Egyptian pharaohs built such monuments to honor the deities, to honor themselves, to honor their reigns. An avenue of sphinxes once connected the Temple of Luxor and the massive complex of the Temple of Karnak, and some of those sphinxes still remain, standing guard for what those monuments represent.

In Agra, India, the Taj Mahal serves as a monument to love, built to honor a beloved wife. In Rome, the Colosseum is a monument to human brutality;to gladiators fighting to the death for the merriment of the masses, at the will of bloodthirsty rulers. The Arc de Triomphe in Paris looms over the Place de l’Etoile, a monument to the French armies and the French empire. A gift from the French, the Statue of Liberty is a symbol of what were once open American borders, the promise that immigrants would find safe harbor.

Two acres in Washington D.C. are dedicated to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Nearly 60,000 names are etched into long slabs of black granite. The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin stands where the Berlin Wall once divided West and East Germany. The memorial is marked by 2,711 concrete slabs, the scope of it an overwhelming reminder of human atrocity. The first memorial to the victims of lynching opened in 2018, in Birmingham, Alabama. The National Memorial for Peace and Justice features 800 steel columns, each bearing the names of counties where black people were lynched and the names of the black lives lost to an abhorrent practice. In the museum visitors learn, in detail, about the extent of lynching and how an entire people were terrorized by the threat of noose and limb. The Cape Coast Castle, in Ghana, still stands, allowing visitors to walk through dungeons where Africans were held before making the transatlantic crossing. There are spaces to leave memorial wreaths and tributes to the people once held in such a terrible place. At the United Nations headquarters in New York, the Ark of the Return – triangles of marble featuring a map of the slave trade, a person carved from black Zimbabwean granite, a reflecting pool – serves as a memorial to the victims of the transatlantic slave trade.

Rumors of War is a statue created by artist Kehinde Wiley. It is a towering work of art, in all senses. A young black man with dreadlocks wearing a hoodie and Nike sneakers sits astride a muscular stallion. He looks strong and proud, unapologetic in his blackness. Or, at least, that’s what I see. Before this statue was moved to its final home in Richmond, VA, it stood in Times Square, a spectacle in the center of a spectacle. My wife and I went to look at the statue, to appreciate the scale of it, to see how a black artist challenged how we think of monuments, what deserves to be remembered, immemorial.

Every culture throughout history has dedicated an unfathomable amount of resources to the preservation of lives lived and lost, monarchic reigns, elected leaders, wars and the men and women who fought in them, and the deities they worship. It is only in recent years that we have begun to memorialize atrocities and the lives sacrificed to hatred and oppression. It is only in recent years that we have acknowledged the importance of reminders of our failings as much as we remember our successes.

There are more than 1,700 monuments and other public symbols of the Confederacy still standing in the United States. They memorialize America’s original sin, a war lost, lives sacrificed to white supremacy and the shame of a society more invested in human capital than freedom and dignity. For decades, the fact of these monuments went largely unquestioned or questions about their place in our society were ignored. These monuments, according to their defenders, preserve history. But that preservation comes at a cost and they are a constant reminder that some people value a history that was, for their forefathers, quite different from the history of the people they enslaved and fought to keep enslaved.

The word “monument” finds its origins in Latin and French, deriving from the word monere, to remind, but all too often, people revere monuments not because they want a reminder to avoid repeating historical wrongs but because they want to preserve toxic ideologies, because they want what they know of the world to remain unchallenged. In Richmond, Virginia, Monument Avenue is lined with monuments to Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson and others. A statue of Jefferson Davis once also stood on the avenue, but it was torn down during a protest following the police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Behind the statues of Monument Avenue, there are mansions, some more than 100 years old, monuments to wealth and whiteness, because when the neighborhood was created, only white people were allowed to live there and this segregation was, for many years, codified by city ordinances. It is supposed to be a different time, but it isn’t. State and city officials and local residents continue to fight over the disposition of the remaining monuments and over what should or should not be remembered.

All across the United States and around the world, monuments to the Confederacy, to slavery, are being torn down by people who have had enough of racial oppression, systemic racism and the monuments that valorize these conditions. In tearing down these monuments, activists are declaring that some things do not deserve to be remembered and that some memories are actively detrimental to our well-being and cultural memory. Just as many people are decrying the removal of these monuments, prioritizing their attachment to the past over the lived realities of people in the present. In June 2020, Donald Trump signed the “Executive Order protecting American Monuments, Memorials, and Statues,” to prosecute anyone who “destroys, damages, vandalizes, or desecrates a monument, memorial, or statue within the United States.” The order is also punitive, and will deny funding to municipalities that don’t protect monuments, no matter how odious the practices or people they celebrate.

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Efforts to preserve monuments to racism and oppression are, hopefully, a last gasp of Confederate malignance, a last attempt to hold on to the way the world once was, where people thrived not on merit, but by the mere virtue of white skin because in a world where everyone is equal, their success would be unlikely.

In the scars left behind by these monuments, we have the opportunity to build something new. That’s what this moment requires – not merely change, but a completely new way of thinking. We must finally dismantle white supremacy and create something equitable in its place.

Where do we begin? What do we do as individuals? There are no easy answers. Racism has persisted across centuries. We will not suddenly vanquish racism simply because more people are finally aware that systemic racism is real and malignant and affects every aspect of our lives. And though we need to re-imagine our understanding of race and equity, the work (white) people must do now is not nearly as impossible as it might seem, and it is certainly not as impossible as living under systems of oppression that limit every opportunity.

Yes, you can read all of the books about race and racism that are suddenly in fashion. You can donate money to nonprofits dedicated to community bail, combatting racism, and protecting civil rights. You can and should attend protests and bear witness to how aggressively, militaristically, and violently police departments across the country are dedicated to protecting the status quo. You can volunteer your time and expertise to organizations working to enfranchise voters, abolish police and prisons, and the like. You can support political candidates at the local, state, and federal levels and canvas and vote in every election. But really, these are table stakes, the kind of community-oriented work we should all be doing, because we share this world with a great many others.

This is a moment that demands the repudiation of silence in the face of this oppression. All too often, people remain silent in the face of bigotry. They are aware racism persists, that police brutality is rampant, that voters across the United States are disenfranchised, but they decide there’s nothing they can do about it, so feeling bad about it is enough. Such laments are not nearly enough. One of the most important things white people, in particular, can do, is not remain silent about racism. It is important to actively and consistently acknowledge racism and its effects, call out racism when you witness it, and use your privilege to demand equity whenever and wherever you can. You have to be willing to hold yourselves, your friends and neighbors, your coworkers, your community, and your family accountable for the prejudices they hold. You have to abandon the notion of allyship, abandon the comfortable distance allyship provides, and decide you are only as free as the most marginalized members of your community.

Now is the time to do the work of being actively anti-racist, even when it is uncomfortable, even when it demands more of you than you are willing to give. It will require sacrifice and the ceding of position and power that was not earned on merit but on the back of white supremacy and black suffering. Now is also the time of changing what you value and what you believe deserves remembrance. We do not need monuments to preserve the history of the Confederacy and those who benefitted from that treason – books do that work, and well.

To build a monument is a time and labor intensive process. Someone decides a person or an era or event needs to be memorialized. They design an obelisk or a structure or a statue. In the case of a statue, a model is made, and then a framework and then a mold and then a cast and then that cast is filled with bronze, melted at 2000 degrees, and then the cast is removed, and the bronze is cleaned and a patina is applied and the statue is displayed in whatever way its designer deems fitting. It’s all very intricate, which defies credulity when considering the horrors to which this intricacy has been applied. But that can change. We can change what we value and what deserves remembrance. We can learn to build new monuments to create a cultural memory that acknowledges the sins of the past, the realities of the present and the possibilities for the future.