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Those Confederate and Colonial Monuments, with Dr. Derik Smith

Those Confederate and Colonial Monuments, with Dr. Derik Smith

Shadi Toloui-Wallace | Oct 16, 2020
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Baha’is are committed to justice – to implementing ways for individuals, communities, and institutions to transform and work towards a just and equitable future for all people. 

So when the conversation about the protection or removal of Confederate and colonial monuments – and the pressing questions surrounding their accurate depictions of history, memory, and context – surfaced again recently, the team at Cloud9 decided to deepen their understanding and ponder the question: Do these monuments really help or hamper humanity’s collective progress toward justice? 

The founder of the Baha’i Faith, Baha’u’llah, wrote:

The best beloved of all things in My sight is Justice; turn not away therefrom if thou desirest Me, and neglect it not that I may confide in thee. By its aid thou shalt see with thine own eyes and not through the eyes of others, and shalt know of thine own knowledge and not through the knowledge of thy neighbor.

In a first for Cloud9, this episode represents the initial installment in a four-part series, dedicated to an exploration of the social and spiritual implications of Confederate and colonial monuments as public forms of art here in North America and around the world. 

The first guest in this series is Dr. Derik Smith, a professor in the Department of Literature at Claremont McKenna College just east of Los Angeles. His work focuses on African American literary culture and cultural history, with a particular interest in African American poetry and intellectual history. 

In the first episode of this series, we ask Professor Smith to give us an in-depth overview of monuments, and to provide insight, answers, and perspectives on their historical context and narrative, centered on the theme of justice. The question of justice in relation to these monuments is one that many people are currently asking. Since their inception, confederate and colonial monuments have been a source of contention across North America, and the world. Often considered as public forms of art, these monuments have stood in central and public spaces in cities and towns for decades, protected by law and often erected and maintained through public funding. To many, they represent the past, a venerated part of our collective history, and their removal represents an erasure of that history. 

However, in recent years, we’ve begun to see individuals, communities, elected officials, and local and state governments rally behind the removal of some of these monuments, in opposition to what they stand for and symbolize. In that process, we’ve seen monuments decapitated, spray-painted, thrown into rivers, re-imagined by artists, and removed from public spaces by force or by consensus. Recent high-profile events involving police brutality and systemic oppression remind everyone of the long history of violence against Black people in America, and these events have once again brought to the surface questions surrounding the validity of certain monuments as public forms of art, including their celebration of racist individuals and ideologies.

Robert E. Lee Monument In Richmond, Virginia. Lee, a Confederate General, accepted “the extinction of slavery” provided for by the Thirteenth Amendment, but opposed racial equality for African Americans. After his death in 1870, Lee became a cultural icon in the South and is largely hailed as one of the Civil War’s greatest generals. (source: wikipedia.org)

There’s no doubt that for some people, this question of what to do with monuments has grown into a far bigger and far more politically partisan issue. Baha’is steer clear of partisan politics – but as advocates of justice and seekers of truth, also investigate whatever holds us back from our pursuit of justice, or provides a pathway forward. This approach reflects a critical principle of the Baha’i Faith, the independent investigation of truth:

God has created in man the power of reason whereby man is enabled to investigate reality. God has not intended man to blindly imitate his fathers and ancestors. He has endowed him with mind or the faculty of reasoning by the exercise of which he is to investigate and discover the truth; and that which he finds real and true, he must accept. He must not be an imitator or blind follower of any soul. He must not rely implicitly upon the opinion of any man without investigation; nay, each soul must seek intelligently and independently, arriving at a real conclusion and bound only by that reality. The Promulgation of Universal Peace.

As a response to this principle and the many questions surrounding Confederate and colonial monuments in relation to the Baha’i principle of justice, the team at Cloud9 decided to investigate, research and record conversations with various academics, experts and individuals, and make them available to our wide and diverse audience. 

Our conversation in this episode starts with exploring what a confederate monument is, and asking Professor Smith to break down what’s at the crux of this issue, using the principle of justice as a foundation for our discussion. We then ask him to share more context surrounding when these monuments were constructed, the beliefs that shaped them, who originally funded them, the strategies behind why these monuments were placed in the locations where we find them today, and the individuals and accomplishments they often portray. 

We take things deeper by examining the concept of unconditional love, through the following speech from Abdu’l-Baha

Just as God loves all and is kind to all, so must we really love and be kind to everybody. We must consider none bad, none worthy of detestation, no one as an enemy. We must love all; nay, we must consider everyone as related to us, for all are the servants of one God.

We then ask Professor Smith to explain how he reconciles Abdu’l-Baha’s instructions with the possibility of dishonoring the memory and history of the individuals portrayed in the monuments by removing their monuments. 

We continue by exploring America’s spiritual destiny, and the power it has to influence the whole world, by examining the writings of Shoghi Effendi, the grandson of Abdu’l-Baha, who served as the Guardian of the Baha’i Faith: 

It [the destiny of America] must, however long and tortuous the way, lead, through a series of victories and reverses, to the political unification of the Eastern and Western Hemispheres, to the emergence of a world government and the establishment of the Lesser Peace, as foretold by Baha’u’llah and foreshadowed by the Prophet Isaiah. It must, in the end, culminate in the unfurling of the banner of the Most Great Peace, in the Golden Age of the Dispensation of Baha’u’llah.

We ask Professor Smith how such a statement could influence the conversation about monuments being a reflection of the truth, and how truth might shape what public art looks like in the future. 

We close by exploring the role of the three main protagonists in this drama – the individual, the community and its institutions or governments – by asking whether Professor Smith has seen examples where these three protagonists have worked collectively to navigate the conversation surrounding monuments, and whether he can share examples where institutions or governments have engaged individuals and communities in a collaborative, consultative process in order to work towards truth and justice.  

Future episodes in this series will include conversations with Dr. Layli Maparyan, a psychologist and currently the Director of the Wellesley Centers for Women and Professor of Africana Studies at Wellesley College, to talk about the effects of Confederate monuments on the psyche of people of African descent. We will also chat with Dr. Justin De Leon, who is currently a Visiting Research Fellow at the University of Notre Dame’s Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies. Dr. De Leon’s work focuses on feminist theory, Indigeneity and creative storytelling, and we’ll ask him about the implications of Confederate and colonial monuments and mascots on people of Indigenous descent. Finally, we will close the series in a conversation with Anisa Tavangar, a writer, editor, and creative producer in Brooklyn, New York, who works at the intersection of art, justice, and spirituality, about how the Baha’i Faith offers individuals, community members and institutions a blueprint for ways to memorialize the past in the future. 

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