Re-enactment or Remembrance: How Monument Display Effects Human Reaction
The way in which tragedies are commemorated in memorials impacts how people react to the depiction of pain felt by migrant communities. When analyzing memorials, it is important to be aware of the fine line between monuments that re-enact violence and those that remember the violence. In my exhibit, I unpack the distinguishing factors between these two types of memorials and how this distinction influences communities in different ways.
The vivid depiction of pain and the effects of violence against migrant communities in memorials allows us to remember what occurred in landscapes of violence. The National Memorial for Peace and Justice is “dedicated to the legacy of enslaved black people, people terrorized by lynching” as they migrated to the North for asylum (“The National Museum for Peace and Justice”, eji.com). The brutal depiction of lynching victims portrays the physical and emotional pain endured by enslaved communities. The statues are displayed in several positions, some falling and some already fallen, with terrorized facial expressions, all chained together. It represents unity in violence. Some may argue that this radical depiction is insensitive However, this monument’s purpose is to prevent the re-enactment of this oppression. This is a commemoration of mass violence, reminding us that the oppression of an entire group caused terrible pain and that this should never be repeated in our history again. The overwhelming presence of violence at this site steers people away from the thought of re-enacting the horrific lynchings. This distinguishes this memorial from others re-enact violence. It is the radical depiction of violence against an oppressed community that elicits emotions of fear and pain so extreme that it changes and even deepens how society understands the historical and cultural impact of lynchings on the America we know today.
In contrast to the National Memorial of Peace and Justice, the Battle of Gettysburg memorial in Virginia, or the Virginia Monument, commemorates individual people rather than a united community and fails to commemorate the historical-cultural context of the commemorated event. In 1863, the Battle of Gettysburg marked the “crushing defeat of the Confederacy” (“Battle of Gettysburg”, History.com). Thousands of soldiers migrated to Gettysburg to fight for their country. One of the most long-lasting effects of ”Union victory” was “ensured continuing support for the international abolishment of racial slavery” (“The Consequences of the Union Victory,1865”, State.gov). The Virginia monument, however, is not a commemoration of what Confederacy defeat meant for the future of enslaved people. The depiction of Robert E. Lee, 41 feet tall, on a horse and undefeated, contradicts what the battle represented. This overwhelming dominance of Confederate influence and power represented by this monument is a re-enactment of the forces that kept black communities oppressed, keeping the violence alive through the memory of the Confederate soldiers and their fight against racial freedom. Memorials like these are part of keeping racial violence alive in society. The commemoration of racist values, in turn, promotes the integration of such values in today’s communities.
The absence of a visual representation of the pain endured by migrant communities in memorials creates a disconnect between the viewer and the historical-cultural context of the community commemorated. The Angel Island Chinese Immigration Memorial in California “commemorates in [Mandarin] those who [who were detained at the immigration station and] died on the island, so close to the "golden door" (“Angel Island Chinese Immigration Memorial”, Flickr.com). The memorial reads, "Leaving their homes and villages, they crossed the ocean only to endure confinement in these barracks. Conquering frontiers and barriers, they pioneered a new life by the Golden Gate” (“Angel Island Chinese Monument”, migrationmemorials.trinity.duke.edu). There were several poems written by detained immigrants, one saying that they “were victimized as if they were guilty. Given no opportunity to explain, it was really brutal” (Yogi 79). What the memorial fails to depict is the suffering of those who waited for “months in a purgatory of isolation and suspense”, waiting to know whether their efforts to find a better life in America were worth it (“The Chinese Experience: Between Two Worlds”, pbs.org). This memorial fails to depict the suffering endured by migrants who were detained at the immigration station on Angel Island. Silence is a form of violence re-enactment. The absence of a clear depiction of violence and pain in this memorial is silence. The lack of emotional representation in the monument creates ambiguity that allows people to separate themselves from the suffering the migrants endured. The beautiful display of words in Mandarin keeps our attention away from the maltreatment they underwent. The absence of violence in this exhibit is meant to steer people away from remembering the violence conflicted on this community by island detention officers. It's meant to distract and re-enact, not commemorate.
“Angel Island Chinese Monument.” Angel Island Chinese Monument | Duke Migration Memorials, https://migrationmemorials.trinity.duke.edu/items/angel-island-chinese-m....
History.com Editors. “Battle of Gettysburg.” History.com, A&E Television Networks, 29 Oct. 2009, https://www.history.com/topics/american-civil-war/battle-of-gettysburg.
PBS, Public Broadcasting Service, https://www.pbs.org/becomingamerican/ap_prog2.html.
“State of Virginia Monument (Gettysburg).” CivilWarWiki, https://civilwarwiki.net/wiki/State_of_Virginia_Monument_(Gettysburg).
“The National Memorial for Peace and Justice.” Legacy Museum and National Memorial for Peace and Justice, https://museumandmemorial.eji.org/memorial.
“The National Memorial for Peace and Justice.” The National Memorial for Peace and Justice | Duke Migration Memorials, https://migrationmemorials.trinity.duke.edu/items/national-memorial-peac....
“The State of Virginia Monument at Gettysburg.” The Battle of Gettysburg, http://gettysburg.stonesentinels.com/confederate-monuments/confederate-s....
U.S. Department of State, U.S. Department of State, https://2001-2009.state.gov/r/pa/ho/time/cw/106556.htm.
Yogi, Stan. MELUS, vol. 17, no. 2, 1991, pp. 77–79. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/467002.