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Ken Burns Explains How Confederate Statues and The Statue of Liberty Represent ‘Myth, Not Fact’
Want to know what Ken Burns, noted history nut, thinks of the national debate raging over confederate statues, but don’t have ten plus hours to spare for a typical Burns-length feature? Then have we got a video for you. Over at the opinion page of The Washington Post, Burns has created a brief video essay unpacking the role that these statues play in shoring up white supremacy, with the searing argument that Confederate statues are a paean to “myth, not fact,” and that, “as we consider what role monuments play in our culture, it’s the history, not the mythology, that we must remember.”
The video opens with archival footage of James Baldwin meditating on the meaning of liberty, speaking to Burns about the limits of liberty for people of color in an interview for his 1985 PBS documentary, The Statue of Liberty. Burns calls it “one of the most memorable conversations I’ve ever been a part of,” saying Baldwin taught him that, “our monuments, even those as revered as the Statue of Liberty, are representations of myth, not fact.”
Burns draws a comparison between the construction of the Statue of Liberty and the construction of confederate statues across the United States. The Statue of Liberty, he notes, was constructed as a partnership between the United States and France, with laborers from both nations working together and pooling their own money to construct this visual celebration of democracy. Burns notes that in the ten years it took to construct the Statue of Liberty, twenty confederate monuments were erected across the United States in cities both large and small, with hundreds more constructed in the years to follow, even cropping up as recently as 2015.
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“These monuments were efforts to reimpose white supremacy and rewrite history,” Burns says. “They are racism memorialized in our public spaces. When we look at the Statue of Liberty and think about the ideals it’s meant to represent, we cannot forget the larger context in the country at the time.”
Burns cites the beginning of the Jim Crow era in the American South, as well as the Chinese Exclusion Act; meanwhile, over half the American population was barred from voting. He then circles back to James Baldwin, who said in their 1985 interview, “Liberty is individual, passionate will to be free–but this passion, this will, is always contradicted by the necessities of the state. Everywhere–for as long as we’ve heard of mankind, as long as we’ve heard of states. I don’t know if it’ll be like that forever. For Black Americans, for Black inhabitants of this country, the Statue of Liberty is simply a very bitter joke meaning nothing to us.”
As Baldwin’s blistering words hang over the video, Burns concludes, “Even our most venerated moments represent a mythology. While we may hope the statue represents our highest aspirations for what America can and should be, it can also be a reminder of where and how far we fall short.”
The Statue of Liberty can be streamed on Amazon Prime.
Adrienne Westenfeld is a writer and editor at Esquire, where she covers books and culture.
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