All I have to do is think of the Kunte Kinte-Alex Haley Memorialat City Dock in Annapolis, Maryland to remind myself that statues can serve a positive purpose. In recent weeks, many people have gathered by the Memorial to peacefully join together. Their cause— to stand in solidarity and to affirm Black Lives Matter.
The group of bronze statues depict author Alex Haley(1921-1992) reading from his Pulitzer Prize winning book, Roots- The Saga of an American Family, to three school children of different races. According to the Kunte Kinte-Alex Haley Foundation, “it is the only monument of its kind in the United States commemorating the actual name and arrival place of an enslaved African.” In addition to the statues there is a story wall consisting of 10 bronze plaques that share messages designed to foster reconciliation and healing from a legacy of slavery, ethnic hatred and oppression. A bronze inlaid map of the world, The Compass Rose, is located across the street at the Market House. Fourteen feet across, it orients the location of Annapolis in a global and directional context.
Meanwhile, in other cities, statues of Confederate Generals still stand in public places of honor. Their presence continues to divide the country. The glorification of Confederate Generals is a painful reminder that racism still exists in the United States and their “retirement” is long overdue.
But what will we do with the new spaces that have been created? In 2017 the Annapolis State House Trust agreed to remove the statue of Justice Roger Brooke Taney, author of the 1857 Dred Scott Decision from the grounds of the Maryland State House. Taney wrote in his Supreme Court decision that black citizens had no rights. In nearby Baltimore and in New Orleans every confederate statue was removed in 2017 and the work continues. Since the 2013 Black Lives Matter movement began, founded in response to the acquittal of Trayvon Martin’s murderer and further fueled in 2015 by the horrendous church shooting in Charleston, South Carolina, more than 114 statues have been removed nationwide ( and the number is growing).
Some of these new spaces are located in prominent city squares and parks, They provide a public opportunity for re-examination of our past and creative expression. Wisely, many art historians and social scientists are advising that the citizenry should not move with haste to destroy some of these monuments, because there may be an opportunity to put together exhibits that take components from the past and present them in a new context.
So many museums and galleries are currently closed, due to the need for social distancing during the global Pandemic, these additional public spaces provide exhibit opportunity. Maybe artists want to create new work that tells the stories of all the American people, work that is shared on a rotating basis.
It took more than twenty years for the Kunte Kinte- Alex Haley Memorial to become a reality. The idea started with a request for a simple plaque to commemorate Haley and his ancestor in 1978. Initially unveiled in 1981 it was stolen two days later. Left behind was a card saying, “You have been patronized by the KKK.” The plaque was replaced, but the vandalism spurred memorial supporters headed by the late Leonard Blackshear( founder of the Kunta Kinte-Alex Haley Foundation) to move forward with a plan for a larger memorial that evolved into the bronze statues that stand today, unveiled in 2002.
The wheels of change for positive action move at different rates. It took time, money, and the energy of many people working together to create something that would serve to remind people of the importance of learning from our history and our past mistakes. Now with so many people unemployed —many of them artists and historians—we have the opportunity to create and fund works of art that will unite the country. Just an idea, but we all have to think it first. Removing the Confederate statues is just the first step. What new things are we going to build?