In eighth grade, when my class traveled to Washington, D.C., we saw monuments that celebrated the Founding Fathers, a larger-than-life homage to Abraham Lincoln, and memorials for men who died in bygone wars. All this was proper, as are statues of Martin Luther King Jr. and FDR and the planned Eisenhower memorial. Many figures in American history had achievements worth honoring. But perhaps in addition to building landmarks to the best parts of our past, the physical infrastructure of America's capital should note the worst of it. If D.C. statues and monuments didn't just exalt, but also criticized, would we face reality more squarely?
In my travels, I can't recall a city where this is done, save one: Birmingham, Alabama.
Isn't that powerful?
Architecture in world capitals has mostly gone all in on the Great Man theory of history. Though Washington does have a Holocaust Museum to document a horror perpetrated by foreigners, it lacks a memorial to the slaves who were among the greatest victims of this country and its government for several generations.
To see if a more subversive approach would prove worthwhile, let's try a thought experiment, for if this would work anywhere, it's in a country founded with a letter denouncing a king as an oppressive tyrant. Is there a set of monuments that would give the average visitor to Washington a fuller, more accurate sense of U.S. history, warts and all? Would criticism interspersed with praise better reflect the messiness of our contentious democracy and the realities of fallible human leadership? Would the self-criticism implicit in this project speak well of us as a nation? Or at least better prepare us to govern ourselves under the fallible humans of our time?