There is no shortage of statues around both the United States and Canada that depict leaders from history. Every small town has a couple, most cities have dozens. The problem is that some of these leaders held views that are now seen as racist, sexist or just plain wrong. But, to me, that’s not the most basic problem with these celebrations of men (and they’re almost all white men) who were flawed, misguided or, in some cases, prejudiced and cruel.
The biggest problem is that these statues are almost always made of men who were born into the right families at the right time. If they’d been the sons of blacksmiths or farmers or teachers or artists we would never have known anything about them. Certainly there would be no statues made of them. Most of the statues in North America are of men who were not exceptional, talented or skilled in any way. They were merely lucky enough to be born in the right family. Are these the men from our past we truly want to celebrate?
My belief is that all statues of any historical figure should be taken down. The discussion now should not be about which statues to leave up and which to demolish but rather on why we need to erect statues to anyone at all. If, and it’s a big if, society decides that there is merit to having statues of historical figures let’s not put them up to men who were born into aristocratic families or political families or families with long-established, inherited wealth. Let’s not honor men from the past who were, in modern terms, born on third base and think they hit home runs.
If we feel people from our past should be honored, perhaps as a way of remembering that past, let’s look to the common, everyday people who actually did the fighting in the wars (and not from behind the back lines like the generals or from war rooms like the politicians) and who made medical or practical discoveries or created lasting works of art. Those are the truly interesting, innovative, exceptional men. And let’s, too, look to women from the past, often overlooked or ignored, and to people from other races other than white. Both of these groups have made lasting and important historical contributions to the advancement and betterment of humans that have been utterly ignored in our rush to celebrate entitled aristocrats, wealthy bumblers and other members of the elite who through the ages have been so good at not only putting their offspring into powerful positions but also duping the masses into believing that they were acting for the good of humanity.
I’ve written a historical novel, The Long Way Home, about two men who most people in the United States and Canada have never heard of: Thomas Peters and Murphy Steele. They were slaves who fought to gain freedom for themselves and many others during the War of Independence and then, afterwards, in Nova Scotia. They faced incredible hardship, entrenched racism, government indifference, disease and the miseries and losses of war. And yet they held on to, and worked towards, their vision of a free life for themselves and their comrades.
The Long Way Home is an exciting adventure story. It’s full of harrowing ordeals, dangerous experiences, terrible loss and heart-rending frustration. It’s also full of hope, love and compassion from unexpected sources. It’s a novel about two real men who lived in difficult times, who came from the humblest of beginnings, who fought against all manner of oppression and who triumphed through sheer force of will, intelligence, dignity, courage and foresight. The book has been well received throughout the world because it resonates with basic human qualities that are to be respected and honored.
There are no statues of Thomas Peters in the United States or Canada. If we want to erect any statues he should be near the top of the list. There are others like him---many from racial minorities but also from white men from the past who weren’t of the ruling class. Women too. Let’s remember the men and women from our past who were courageous, intelligent and thoughtful, not the ones who were born with silver spoons firmly planted in their mouths.
If we must put up statues, let’s put them up to deserving people, individuals who were real leaders and heroes. Let’s read books about those long-forgotten people too. My book, The Long Way Home is exactly that as well as being a hell of an adventure tale.