We adorn our homes with family photos, images of the people, places, and things that tell the stories of who we are. Where we come from, whom we love, and what is important to us.
We do the same in our cities. The monuments and memorials we put up tell the story of who we are as a people. Unlike in our homes, however, each of us does not get to decide what or whom these commemorations represent.
The question of what and whom is represented in ‘public’ space, in a democracy, opens up a whole other dimension of representation. Who is ‘the public’? In a legal sense, monuments and memorials in public space are regulated – put up or taken down – by government, and the people whose voices are reflected in that government are most often the same people whose stories are represented.
There are many monuments in American public spaces. It is common for them to represent political and military leaders. Most of them are men. In some cities, particularly but not exclusively Southern ones, many are men who seceded from the United States and fought a war in order to preserve their right to enslave people of African descent. These monuments were erected by European-descended Americans who racialized themselves as White.
These people did not believe that African Americans, whom they racialized as Black, were as human as they were; in March, 1861, Confederate vice president Alexander Stephens called the “cornerstone” of the Confederacy “the eternal truth that the Negro is not equal to the White man, that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition.”
The ideology of White supremacy has no place in public spaces. It is wrong. Beyond that, it does not represent the beliefs of a majority of people, Black or White, in many American towns and cities, including New Orleans, Charlottesville, or the former capital of the Confederate States, Richmond.
These monuments exist because the “public” who consented to their placement was not a democratically representative one. Through ‘legal’, if unconstitutional Jim Crow laws and illegal but unprosecuted terrorism, including lynching and bombing, White elites kept Black people from voting in elections. They used other tactics to discourage poor White immigrants, including Irish, German and Italians, as well as Chinese, Japanese, Indigenous and others they considered undesirable from participating in representative government. Women of every racial and ethnic identity were prevented from most political participation, and LGBTQIA+ expression was deemed deviant, evidence of mental illness.
This meant that none of these communities were a part of the process of choosing people who would decide the “family photos” for our cities. This was simply one more way of telling “them” that “they” were not a part of the American family.
Movements to enlarge that “public” have succeeded in broadening considerably who is represented in government. But monuments have lives far beyond elected officials’ terms of office. Only now, a century after women gained the right to vote and half a century after the civil rights revolution and the beginnings of queer liberation, is American society questioning in earnest why our monuments and memorials mostly represent cisgendered, heterosexual White men.
A family photo representing only a small slice of our racial, ethnic, gender, sexual and cultural diversities isn’t much to look at. Whose stories are missing? Whose do we want to tell? What fascinating, but obscured, people, places, movements and events are out there?
Paper Monuments exists as a means for asking everyone these questions, so that we all may have a voice in deciding what and who represents New Orleans. Whether you're on tiptoes in the back row or clowning around in the front, we want you in the photo.