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Op-eds, Opinions

The statues must go: Brown should not celebrate colonialism

By , , and
Op-ed contributors
Sunday, November 1, 2020

You may have heard that Decolonization at Brown (DAB) is trying to remove some statues. Decolonization at Brown is a student group committed to reimagining Brown by decolonizing our academics, spaces and relationships. One of our current initiatives is to remove and replace the two copies of Roman statues, those of Caesar Augustus and Marcus Aurelius, on Brown’s campus. In this piece, we hope to outline our reasons for this effort. Specifically, we are calling for the statues’ removal because they celebrate ongoing colonialism in the United States and idealize white, Western civilization — both of which continue to cause harm at Brown today. 

In order to understand the role of these statues at Brown, we must first recognize the way colonialism works in the United States. The United States was, and continues to be, grounded in settler colonialism. As a nation, it is founded upon the violent displacement and occupation of Native communities and land by Europeans and others. The 13 original colonies were created by European settlers through the killing of Native peoples and the systematic dispossession of Native land. These settlers did not leave following the Revolutionary War. Instead, they remained on Native land, claiming it as their own. Today, Americans continue to perpetuate this process. The 13 colonies have expanded to 50 states and many territories — an expansion made possible by further displacement, genocide and the continued denial of Native rights. This is what we mean when we refer to colonialism in the United States. Native American communities have been, and continue to be, actively harmed by settlers from other places. Racial enslavement has also been foundational to colonialism in the United States, but we will not be addressing this directly here

Within this broader context, the two Roman-style statues at Brown are harmful because they celebrate the ongoing occupation of Native land by the United States and replace Native histories with monuments to white, Western civilization. 

These statues are one part of a broader colonial project. The Europeans who began colonization in North America cited Ancient Rome as a guiding example for their colonial mission on Native American lands. Later, the founders of the United States would do the same, claiming Ancient Rome as part of a lineage of European civilization. This idea of a shared Western civilization led European settlers and their descendants to set up replicas of Roman statues across the United States. The statues claim the United States as a part of Western civilization — even though it is outside of Europe. This claim is only possible because of colonial violence and occupation of Native communities in North America. To see Roman-style statues on Native land is to know who has power and who does not ― that is, to know that “Westerners” are in power and Native peoples are not. The Roman statues on Brown’s campus directly invoke and embody this power dynamic, celebrating the continued domination of Native land and peoples by the West.  

Another key part of colonialism in the United States is the attempted replacement of Native cultures and histories with those of Western civilization, rooted specifically in Ancient Rome. European settlers imposed this narrative on Native nations through genocide, forced reeducation and violent assimilation of surviving Native peoples. At the same time, descendants of Europeans were raised to believe they were the inheritors of Roman civilization in America. As early as 1725, children in the 13 colonies were taught that, like Julius Caesar, they needed to fight and civilize “savage” people — in this case, Native Americans. American schools today continue to teach entire generations that a white, Western history is the natural story of America.

Copies of Roman statues are one part of this process of replacing Native histories with the idea of Western civilization. During the 19th and early 20th centuries, American settlers returned from Europe with hundreds of replicas of Roman statues to display in universities, museums and public spaces across the country. The Caesar Augustus and Marcus Aurelius statues at Brown, brought to campus in 1906 and 1908, are part of this broader movement, in which copies of Roman monuments create geographic and historical ties between the United States and Western civilization. The presence of these kinds of statues on Native land is actively harmful, denying Indigenous histories to legitimize occupation.

In addition to their role in celebrating colonial conquest and replacing Indigenous histories, the two copies of Roman statues at Brown also uphold the supposed superiority of white, Western civilization. These monuments were brought to campus for a particular kind of university, one that was built on Native land and had a student body and faculty that were almost entirely white. During the unveiling of these statues, professors and administrators extolled the virtues, superiority and perfection of Western civilization, personified in these depictions of Roman emperors. 

Then-President William Faunce (class of 1880) remarked about the Caesar Augustus statue that “it serves to remind us of the great Augustan age of art and literature, an age when both were at their best.” Later, following the same logic, Philosophy Professor Walter Everett (class of 1885) declared that it was Marcus Aurelius’ “glory to have held that banner so high that through the centuries it has been a shining mark of human perfection.” Importantly, these ideas of the superiority of Roman civilization, culture and philosophy directly uphold the claim that Western civilization is the pinnacle of all human achievement.

More than that, these statues at Brown also send the message that non-white people should aspire to be a part of this civilization. Then-Art History Professor William Poland (class of 1868) proclaimed that those gathered at Brown to celebrate the Marcus Aurelius statue were “thrilled by the revelation of this imperial figure of the monarch, the great conqueror, the lawgiver, the philosopher.” The significance of this monument, however, was only for those “men of culture who have appreciated it.” These statements argue that perfection, virtue and greatness reside in the “classical civilization” of Ancient Rome. 

However, these statues are not just about upholding Western heritage. They are also about whiteness. When those unveiling the statues said, “we celebrate,” “we remember” and “our stern moralist,” they were addressing an audience almost entirely made up of white students, white faculty and white staff. There was no one else in that collective “we” except white people. As inheritors of this history, and the “gifts” of Western conquest, law, philosophy and virtue, they were the ones considered cultured, educated and civilized. Non-European people were and are intentionally excluded from this narrative, in particular the Native communities on whose land these ceremonies took place. Instead, the statues signify that those communities should learn from the value of Western conquest, Western philosophy and Western virtue that made the United States “civilized” and “cultured.” The statues’ presence shapes space at Brown and forces students to interact with monuments to colonialism and whiteness.

We do not think that monuments at Brown today should honor ongoing occupation and genocide, particularly through the public celebration of colonialism in the United States. The idealization of colonialism and whiteness embedded within these kinds of statues was and is harmful. Black, Indigenous and other students of color have to grapple with the ongoing supremacy of Western knowledge in classes and curricula every day ―  to say nothing about the way colonialism literally shapes all of our lives. Removing these statues is not about removing “history” or the discomfort of dealing with Brown’s history. It is impossible to forget a history that has never ended. Instead, our initiative aims to remove the public celebration of colonial occupation and white superiority within the monuments of our landscape. 

This is a necessary step in broader decolonial movements at Brown today. We will continue to critically engage with Brown’s past and present long after these statues are removed, this time without monuments honoring colonialism and the “superiority” of white, Western civilization. With all of this at stake, we, members of Decolonization at Brown, call for the removal of these memorials to colonial domination. We view this call as an opportunity for the transformation of public spaces and public art at Brown. To remove these statues is to move towards a campus that does not honor colonial occupation, but instead actively works to confront this reality. 

Decolonization at Brown can be reached for comment at decolonizationatbrown@gmail.com. For a list of endorsements, see here. To endorse our proposal, please click here. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.

Clarification: To make clear that 1880, 1885 and 1868 refer to class years for three quoted individuals rather than to the years the quotes were said, “class of” was added in front of each year in parentheses.

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  1. skeptical ‘21 says:

    Why do I feel like no one in D@B has read “Decolonization is not a metaphor” by Yang and Tuck. The org’s use of the word decolonization seems quite selective, premised on the continued occupation of indigenous land and use of symbolic and selective gestures to signal the imagined end of such occupation.

    • Christopher says:

      You seem not to have read it. Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang are in fact arguing that all decolonizing attempts must recognize the occupation of Indigenous land. These students seem to be doing just that. They do not claim to end occupation. I do think that removing statues placed on occupied land certainly goes in the direction of doing so, though.

      • skeptical ‘21 says:

        “Decolonization in the settler colonial context must involve the repatriation of land simultaneous to the recognition of how land and relations to land have always already been differently understood and enacted; that is, all of the land, and not just symbolically.”

        Despite their liberal use of the word “decolonization,” D@B seems more concerned with the particulars of settler occupation rather than the end of said occupation.

        While I wouldn’t go so far as to say Tuck and Yang would necessarily oppose this project, their article is founded on an explicit critique of the phrase “decolonize our schools.”

        • “must involve the repatriation of land”….
          So the end game here is what exactly? The so-called ‘occupation’ would apply to all of the State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations, which began as a colony, and everything in that said state, including but not limited to Brown University. So the logical end here is that all of Rhode Island is handed back over to whomever the D@B agitators deem to be ‘natives’ and anyone descendant from the colonizers would need to leave?
          Also, are any of the four authors of this opinion official members of any Native American Nation? If so, which one? If not, under what authority do they claim to speak for Native Nations in the United States?
          I find it comical that there is a continuing reference in these polemics to the supposed oppressive nature of Brown’s curriculum. How can Brown’s ‘choose-your-own adventure’ curriculum be oppressive if everyone chooses their own courses?
          And you really expect me to believe that the academic departments at Brown are all teaching students about the superiority of western civilization and the need to civilize the natives? Seriously?

  2. Would it be possible for BDH to conduct some sort of polling on this issue? I feel like the Herald keeps running these D@B op-eds when most students I’ve talked to are at best ambivalent about removal.

  3. A well-argued call for removal, which I wholeheartedly support. The kids are alright.

  4. I wonder if those that advocate for his statues’ removal have actually read Marcus Aurelius. Perhaps we should look past the fact that he was white and European and focus on what’s important: his philosophy.
    I would like to see more BIPOC art on campus, just like DAB advises. Art—whoever the artist may be—is always appreciated, and I understand BIPOC people’s desire for greater representation. There is no need, however, to take some statues down to replace them with other sculptures/structures. Removing the statue of a prominent philosopher from a college campus to me sounds like something taken right out of “Brave New World” or other such dystopian fiction.

  5. If white people are so terrible, why do people keep wanting to immigrate to countries that they founded? There are plenty of “decolonized” non-white countries to go to instead.

  6. Christopher says:

    This is a much-needed recognition of the harms of colonialism, which is as alive in the U.S. as it is in countries outside of it, countries that have been colonized by the U.S. and other hegemonic nations.

    As Confederate statues have fallen and no “Brave New World” has emerged, so it will go with these statues, I believe. A great philosopher does not need a statue to be honored, and surely not a statue that was created and has been maintained under such violent conditions.

    • “surely not a statue that was created and has been maintained under such violent conditions” The two statues on campus have been maintained under violent conditions? What are you going on about? It’s the campus of Brown University where these statues are located — not the heart of the Jim Crow South and not the middle of Mogadishu either.
      As far as philosophers not needing statues, plenty of people beg to differ. MLK can be rightly thought of as a great philosopher – does he need his monument in Washington DC? Or can we pull that down too?

  7. Peter Mackie'59 says:

    The demand that “the statues must go” is as imperious as the colonization that DAB decries. History does tend to repeat itself.

    • “Here comes the new boss, same as the old boss” as The Who reminded us. Yes, that’s the crux of it. These folks just wanna break stuff and they’re grabbing at whatever they can find. Unless it’s all just one big bamboozle being perpetrated by some college students who are getting a little stir-crazy because of all the lockdowns and are looking to ruffle some feathers for fun and giggles.

    • Eugene Icks says:

      Really, tearing down statues is “as imperious as colonization”?! Really? Colonization brought with it the murder of millions and millions of people, the destruction of countless cultures, the enslavement of millions and millions, the destruction of ecosystems. And taking down two statues on the Brown University campus is as bad as that? In what conceivable moral universe?

  8. None of these authors will reject the prestige that comes to them from said colonization. They will all put Brown on their resumes. Personal sacrifice is not an ideal of the left.

  9. Instead of removing the statues, why not add statues of the underrepresented groups, such as statues of women, people of color, and Native Americans. Rather than reject important elements of western civilization who were white, why not just embrace a broader and more inclusive group? A university should embrace history and multiple cultures, and not eliminate ones that are deemed imperfect.

    Smashing and removing statues is the same as embracing ignorance. When the Taliban smashed the Buddhas of Bamyan, the UN cried in outrage. How is this any different?

  10. Brown Student says:

    This is so stupid

  11. Marilyn Schapiro M.A. 1975 says:

    So is it the position of the decolonization proponents that Brown University should remove all vestiges of Western Civilization from academic life, research and teaching at the university. Only indigenous Native American language, culture and thought should be promulgated? Perhaps some African American culture could also be examined? Much money could be saved by abolishing most of the philosophy, history, art, music and literature departments. And what about modern science? Is not most of what is taught an outgrowth of principles arisng from the so-called Enlightenment and the foundations of Western Civilization?

  12. I love these statues. Keep them. Removing them will do nothing but be divisive.

  13. some inconvenient dates to consider says:

    I am unconvinced that the purpose of these statues lies in the need to legitimize occupation of indigenous land given their temporal situation in the history of colonization of Rhode Island.

    The European settlement of Providence began in the mid 1630s meaning that the city was more than 270 years old at the time these statues were erected. While the nuances of occupation were no doubt more complex, Roger Williams’ reached a formalized land agreement with the indigenous Narragansett people, allowing him and his followers to settle on College Hill. To the Brown men of the early 20th century, this agreement would have constituted plenty justification for the colonization of what is now Providence.

    I thus find it a weak argument that these statues were erected for the purpose of legitimizing or defending the right to occupation.

  14. consideration of precedent? says:

    A precedent that architectural and artistic references to an imagined Roman legacy are grounds for removal would affect the following structures:

    Soldiers Memorial Arch: The triumphal arch was developed and popularized by the Romans.

    Manning Hall: Constructed as a replica of the Temple of Diana-Propylea in Eleusis.

    Rhode Island Hall: Greek revival architecture speaks to an imagined legacy of antiquity.

    John Carter Brown Library: Beaux-Arts architecture is founded in neoclassicist reinterpretations of Greek and Roman design.

    John Hay Library: See above

    Marston Hall: See above

    Annmary Brown Memorial: Academic historicism

    Once these are removed we’ll be left with the notoriously neutral georgian and romanesque revival architecture.

  15. Bud Brooks, '83 says:

    I am still trying to find the quotations that Faunce and Everett made about these Roman ideals being “superior” to anyone else’s: that’s because they did not say that. All they said was that these were great ideals and should be admired, but they did not exclude others accordingly who also had great ideals. Otherwise, this is a bunch of nonsense by so-called “students” who have nothing better do than tear things down. Why don’t you aspire to be like these guys and build something great instead? Pathetic…..

    • Eugene Icks says:

      What “something great” did Caesar Augustus build? You know what’s pathetic? That Bud, class of ’85 worships a Roman emperor. That’s pathetic. You would have loved Mussolini…He also worshiped the Roman Empire

      • I think he probably worships Little Caesars — the savory taste of colonialism and oppression in every cheesey slice!

        • Bud Brooks '83 says:

          No wonder so many people, like me, don’t support Brown any more. Liberalism has infected the school from top to bottom, and most other colleges, too, I’m afraid.

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