Of Monuments and Men

"Ozymandias" by Percy Bysshe Shelley 

I met a traveller from an antique land,

Who said—"Two vast and trunkless legs of stone

Stand in the desert....Near them, on the sand,

Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,

And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,

Tell that its sculptor well those passions read

Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,

The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;

And on the pedestal, these words appear:

My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;

Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!

Nothing beside remains. Round the decay

Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare

The lone and level sands stretch far away." 

“Ozymandias” by Percy Bysshe Shelley revolves around a monument to a self-proclaimed mighty king that has been ravaged by the collective forces of nature and time. The monument was intended to memorialize the commanding presence of this leader; however, his legacy has been undermined by the forces he was seemingly “superior” to. Individuals are the architects of their legacy but how their legacy is remembered and represented is constructed by others. Being granted the opportunity to narrate this memory is powerful. This power yields who is immortalized in the historical memory and who is forgotten. The unfortunate reality of “Ozymandias” is not limited to this poem; it has materialized into modern debates of how minority history is memorialized. Notably, monuments and memorials that focus on slavery are lacking in the American landscape. Ultimately, attempts to commemorate slave history have only shed light on selective historical narratives because the majority has held the pen to narrate the story of slavery in America.

Countering the Collective Memory

Harriet Tubman Memorial 4

The Harriet Tubman Memorial honors the legacy of the “Moses of Her People.” Strategically located in the North, this memorial embodies the precarious risks slaves undertook to emancipate themselves from the chains of slavery. This memorial is enshrouded in controversy because “Tubman appears to be striding determinedly south rather than heading north toward freedom” (Williams). A public outcry ensued, claiming that this orientation does a disservice to Tubman’s historical representation. On the contrary, Alison Saar, the sculptor of this piece, articulated that the narrative fails to shed light on how Tubman compromised her own freedom when she ventured to the South (Williams). The Harriet Tubman Memorial is an exception to the conventional story of how slave history is reconstructed. Public outrage is a microcosm of the resistance to comprehensively depict this history; it is an attempt to remember half of Tubman’s contribution and remove the focus from the oppressive regimes present in the South. 

Addressing Revisionist History 

Memorials honoring slave history “can only portray a story of progress decontextualized from any history of white racism and oppression” (Romano). In remembering this history, the intention is to have the role of the white man detached from the memorial. This is a mechanism to absolve the wrongdoings and whitewash the narrative. The Vesey Monument attempts to counter the perpetuation of this historical representation by “forcing Charlestonians to confront the reality that slaves were unhappy, so much that they, as well as free black sympathizers like Vesey, might violently rebel” (Kytle and Roberts). Denmark Vesey orchestrated a failed slave revolt, and the statue dedicated to his legacy is virtually unprecedented in the Southern landscape. Historical events that revolve around slaves engaging in passive and active resistance are excluded from the collective memory. Selective instances in history where the power dynamic between slaves and majority was upturned have been relegated to the shadows of history. The promotion of this revisionist history highlights the “very narrow range of permissible discourse about race in the contemporary South” (Romano).  The juxtaposition of this masked history with the explicit remnants of the Confederacy reveal the hypocrisy of who is allowed to be remembered. 

Limitations to the Historical Memory

Unsung Founders Memorial

The Unsung Founders Memorial commemorates the contributions of African-Americans in building the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Erected in 2002, this memorial resembles a table and is engraved with figurines of “bound and free” African-Americans supporting the memorial. For a majority of this memorial’s life, it had been overshadowed by Silent Sam, a Confederate statue located yards away. Silent Sam dominated this space with its towering size. The only memorial dedicated to African-American slaves on the campus was overshadowed by a monument that promoted ideals of oppression. Newer memorials only enter the landscape “if they do not seek to challenge or displace existing memorials” (Romano 990). The power dynamics of the representation of majority versus minority history are at play. This highlights the unfortunate irony of African-American memorials situated in the Southern landscape—an entity intended to empower African-Americans is dictated by white southerners and creates an illusion of progress. 

Memorials as a Mechanism for Power

Slave Memorial at Mount Vernon

History does not occur in a vacuum; it is a perpetual interaction between the past and present that eventually informs the future. Memorials assume the task of coalescing these temporal designations “rather than to attempt to define permanent, inflexible meanings” (Foote and Azaryahu 131). The Slave Memorial at Mount Vernon has negotiated the tensions of the past with the modern moral compass. Mount Vernon functioned as George Washington’s “estate” and has been repurposed to pay homage to the legacy of this Founding Father. Defining Mount Vernon as an “estate” veils the reality that this property was a plantation. The discourse surrounding historical representations often aligns with the “collective memories” that are informed by “the rhetoric of a dominant group with the power to circulate ideas” (Buffington and Waldner 96). George Washington’s identity as a slaveowner has been situated in the periphery. The Slave Memorial redirects attention to Washington’s slaves; however, the memorial operates in a manner that “still tends to divide its presentation of black and white lives” (Casper 225).

Prior to the Slave Memorial, a mere marker consecrated the land on the plantation that contained buried slave bodies. This inscription “languished in obscurity” as it was enshrouded by vegetation and was not within a close proximity to the primary site (Casper 221). Additionally, this marker was dedicated to the “faithful colored servants,” and this intentional diction selection does not remember these individuals as slaves. “Servants” does not carry the ethical enormity of “slaves” which portrays Washington in a more positive fashion. The Slave Memorial provides a historical representation that is more rooted in the reality. The inscription on the granite column explicitly claims these black individuals as slaves. Notably, this progressive shift was spearheaded by efforts of Howard University’s architecture program, the designers of this memorial. Granting African-Americans “the right to represent their history and their race” produced a “counter memory” to the distorted collective memory (Roberts and Kytle 644; Buffington and Waldner 97). The collective memory is protective and has cushioned Washington from being defined by his direct role in the peculiar institution of slavery. Despite the Slave Memorial’s acknowledgement of Washington’s slaves, it underplays the enormity of the reality. The absence of the individual names of slaves does not depict the mass scale of subjugation. This enumeration would “jar the overriding narrative of the place and its heroic proprietor” and taint Washington’s name (Casper 225). 

Look on My Works, Ye Mighty, and Despair!

In this “age of apology,” America is attempting to establish a more inclusive historical memory (Temin and Dahl 915). This valiant effort does not absolve America from its morally reprehensible past, yet the memorials to slaves attempt to accomplish this. What’s absent in these memorials to slaves vocalizes more than the actual monument.  

Works Cited

Buffington, Melanie and Erin Waldner. “Human Rights, Collective Memory, and Counter Memory: Unpacking the Meaning of Monument Avenue in Richmond, Virginia.” Journal of Cultural Research in Art Education, vol. 29, 2011, pp. 92-108. ProQuest Centralscholarscompass.vcu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?referer=https://scholar.google.com/scholar?hl=en&as_sdt=0%2C5&q=Human+Rights%2C+Collective+Memory%2C+and+Counter+Memory%3A+Unpacking+the+Meaning+of+Monument+Avenue+in+Richmond%2C+Virginia&btnG=&httpsredir=1&article=1000&context=arte_pubs. Accessed 7 Mar. 2019. 

Casper, Scott. Sarah Johnson’s Mount Vernon: The Forgotten History of an American Shrine. New York City, Hill and Wang, 2008. 

Foote, Kenneth and Maoz Azaryahu. “Toward a Geography of Memory” Geographical Dimensions of Public Memory and Commemoration.” Journal of Political and Military Sociology, vol. 35, no. 1, Summer 2007, pp. 125-144. ProQuest Central/www.researchgate.net/profile/Ken_Foote/publication/276325758_Toward_a_geography_of_memory_Geographical_dimensions_of_public_memory_and_commemoration/links/5703adaa08ae646a9da9bc09/Toward-a-geography-of-memory-Geographical-dimensions-of-public-memory-and-commemoration.pdf. Accessed 7 Mar. 2019. 

Kytle, Ethan and Blain Roberts. “Looking the Thing in the Face: Slavery, Race, and the Commemorative Landscape in Charleston, South Carolina, 1865-2010.” The Journal of Southern History, vol. 78, no. 3, Aug. 2012, pp. 639-684. ProQuest Central, s3.amazonaws.com/academia.edu.documents/43962232/Roberts_and_Kytle__Looking_the_Thing.pdf?AWSAccessKeyId=AKIAIWOWYYGZ2Y53UL3A&Expires=1552618055&Signature=%2F6rJdCc1WrsOJ0Wk5FyGHidHhME%3D&response-content-disposition=inline%3B%20filename%3DLooking_the_Thing_in_the_Face_Slavery_Ra.pdf.Accessed 7 Mar. 2019.

Romano, Renee. “What Can and Can’t Be Said: Race, Uplift, and Monument Building in the Contemporary South.” The Journal of Southern History, vol. 82, no. 4, Nov. 2016, pp. 990-991. Proquest Central, doi:10.1353/soh.2016.0316. 

Shelley, Percy. “Ozymandias.” The Examiner, 1818. 

Temin, David and Adam Dahl. “Narrating Historical Injustice: Political Responsibility and the Politics of Memory.” Political Research Quarterly, vol. 70, no. 4. Dec. 2017, pp. 905-917. ProQuest Central, doi:10.1177/1065912917718636. 

Williams, Timothy. “Why is Harriet Tubman Facing South?” The New York Times, The New York Times Company, 13 Nov. 2008, cityroom.blogs.nytimes.com/2008/11/13/why-is-harriet-tubman-facing-south/. Accessed 7 Mar. 2019.