by William Hovengrove
In a bizarre, abrupt decision, the Mayor of New York City has ordered the removal of a bronze statue of president Thomas Jefferson at City Hall in Manhattan. The decision is quite a shocker. Here is how Mayor Bill de Blasio explained it:
“Let me be clear. I do not believe that the slave trade was a benign institution, and I do not believe that we should honor men and women who profited from it.”
There’s no better way to explain this stunning turnabout than with an illustration. Jefferson, to put it bluntly, was a slave owner. He operated a trading company in France where he fanned out across the empire. He chartered ships owned by his slave masters, and these slave traders then sold the slaves they had purchased back to them. As it turned out, he made a fortune out of trafficking in slaves.
Much of this work was done for Jefferson’s utopian and capitalist ideas. It is also true that by the mid-1840s, Jefferson left the trade, and the slave slave business, in the hands of slaveholders. He committed himself to his knowledge of the Transatlantic Slave Trade and, as far as slavery was concerned, engaged in continuing political activism on behalf of black people. It is also true that Jefferson’s main words about the slave trade were “that was then.” Perhaps not.
For black people who have been around almost since the beginning of American history, this information came as quite a shock. They know that as part of the natural order of things, some white people will behave very badly and that they will receive the backlash from the community. When this happens, often white people simply distance themselves from the cultural differences between white people and black people. This is what often happens to Robert E. Lee, James Madison, even our own first black president. For too many white people, this process is brutal, but necessary.
For the last 15 years, the first black person ever to be elected to the New York City Council, Bill Perkins, has been quietly championing the removal of the Jefferson statue and its placement in a museum that would learn about the history of slavery. Thomas Jefferson should not be honored at the New York City Hall, Perkins argued. It’s simply too painful for black people to think about a portrait of him hanging in the lap of power.
Now I understand that it is not appropriate to sit on the decision whether to remove a statue if the removal has been made without the approval of the elected Mayor. But I think the mayor has made a serious mistake in his haste to alter history. To support or not to support Jefferson’s ideas of capitalism and slavery is a matter of legitimate debate. To have a statue of him honoring him is not a proper way to go about it.
It is also not an appropriate way to host a public event. The Jefferson statue, to quote the mayor again, “came down” without prior discussion with all of his residents. This is not a good way to govern a great city. Instead of talking about an appropriate statue, the mayor should have been discussing how to further explain the history of slavery and the humanity of black people. History is often uncomfortable to hear, but is it not painful when one believes oneself to be superior to one’s marginalized peers? Do not noble sentiments from a noble man make that more true? I know the opinion here is likely not to be popular, but I’m sorry. That’s not appropriate.