Professor Featured in Series on Ulysses S. Grant Discusses Monuments, Movements and Memorialization

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Marcia Chatelain, a Provost’s Distinguished Associate Professor in the Department of History and African American Studies and author of Franchise: The Golden Arches in Black America, was recently featured on the History Channel’s miniseries Grant.  In this docudrama, Chatelain comments on the legacy of Ulysses S. Grant and delves into the history of the United States before, during and after the Civil War. In a time of heightened awareness about the truth of our nation, we sat down with Chatelain to discuss the dangers of memorializing the past and glorifying individuals through white-washed history. 

Grant was referred to as a “forgotten” president in this series. What has led to a resurgence of interest in him?

I do not know if I would say that Grant is largely forgotten, but I do think that his legacy has been flattened because of the importance of Abraham Lincoln’s presidency during the Civil War and the depravity of Andrew Jackson’s presidency is probably better taught in high school history class. On the whole, the more recent interest in Grant may be animated by a more sophisticated appreciation of the Reconstruction era and an understanding of the squandered opportunity for the nation after it ended in 1877. I also think that this current political moment and the many failures of this White House has also animated interest in the question of just how much does the president matter, and when a president leads so poorly, what does it mean for all people and how are the most marginalized harmed by it.  

What are the similarities and differences between Grant’s statues and memorials and those that are being removed across the country in places like Richmond on Monument Avenue? Should Grant’s statue be preserved or removed?

With regards to statues and memorials that are in the service of the veneration of Grant, or any historical figure, I tend to fall on the side of removing them. Confederate memorials are odious because they are public objects that celebrate white supremacy and have long been used to not only terrorize African Americans, but to also sanitize the violence that was done in the name of the confederacy.  I also think that memorials that celebrate any individual, whether it be Grant or Lincoln, do not necessarily serve the greater good because they tend to flatten the complexities of these figures and they encourage a form of hero worship that does not help people understand history in its entirety. I prefer memorials or public space that are provocative in that they announce the violence that has been central to the nation’s history and encourage people to work toward real peace and justice. This is best done through abstraction such as memorial gardens and sculpture that tries to capture ideas, rather than people on horses.

What would you say in response to those who say that by removing the monuments, we are in effect “erasing history”?

It’s ironic that people think that toppling statues erases history because these statues are often erected in the spirit of evading difficult truths. A statue and its plaque rarely talk about the numbers of people who were killed and harmed in battle, the number of families and communities terrorized or the land that was stolen due to the actions of the person on that horse. So, in order to restore history, we have to get people away from gazing at a statue and encourage them to go to libraries and read archival documents.  

You say at one point in the Grant documentary that the “question of slavery (during the pre-civil war era) and the atrocities of the system, was about the direction the country would take economically and morally.” Now could be viewed as another pivotal point in our history. Do you think the outcome of this period will also determine the moral and/or economic direction of our country? 

Everyday holds a pivot point for the direction of any nation or community or family. Whether people seek change because something dramatic is happening globally or because an individual feels a stirring in their consciousness, today can always be that day that changes everything. With regards to this particular moment in which a pandemic has helped further expose all of the inequality and injustice in our world, and a series of protests against racist, state-sanctioned violence is inspiring people to examine their own behaviors and actions, what matters most is whether the collective will wants to bend toward a critique of capitalism and white supremacy.  

If we want to see peace in our time, and we want to realize the hope of a unified nation, then we have to start at the foundations of why there is so much suffering—and it begins with wealth inequality and the steps that are taken to keep people poor, uninsured, afraid, and without power to change things. Prior to the Civil War, the divides were deep, not only over the question of slavery, but also about the economic viability of the institution in light of the end of the slave trade and abolition in other parts of the world. There were questions about what the territories would look like and who would be part of the nation’s decision making body. Today, the question rests in how much longer will power only reside among the wealthiest in the country, and how much longer will the disenfranchisement of black and brown people be considered a reasonable cost for maintaining the status quo. Increasingly, people from a wide swath of the population are saying no to this. 

Grant was never a full abolitionist though he fought on the side of the Union. Today as well, there are many people who are taking a passive stance to what is happening. Can we learn anything from Grant about the importance of activism in the anti-racist movement, and the dangers of being passive during this time?

If Grant’s presidency can teach us anything, it is the danger of creating heroes, rather than using biography to compile cautionary tales. Grant’s leadership in the Union Army and his overseeing key moments in Reconstruction did not inoculate him from anti-Semitism nor did it mean that he had the capacity to see the fullness of black life. We all have places where we can become stronger in our commitment to justice. If we are so fortunate to be in a position of leadership in which people are looking to us for guidance, we have to be humble with our shortcomings, open to shifting our perspectives, and radical in our imaginations.

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