to the American Museum of Natural History look at a statue of Theodore
Roosevelt, which includes a man in Native American headdress on November 17,
2017 in New York [File: AP]
sweltering August day, when we received daily warnings from our city
authorities about the dangerous heat coming our way, I took my younger children
to the American Museum of Natural History in New York. My children wanted to
see a spectacular show in its planetarium called "Dark Universe" and
I was looking for a cool place to entertain their fancies.
arriving, I remembered that to get in, we will have to navigate around a rather
racist statue of Theodore Roosevelt, showing the late president on horseback
flanked by an African-American and a Native American standing below on each
since the late 1990s this monument has been the subject of critical reflection
in the US, marking the patent racial hierarchy it stages and celebrates.
Following the removal of the Robert E Lee statue in New Orleans in 2017, all
such monuments to the long history of racism in the US have become subjects of
Roosevelt statue was also defaced by a group of activists in 2017. In July
2019, a special exhibition was opened at this very museum about its racist
As we stood
in line to get ticket for the planetarium show, paramount on my mind was not
just the racist evidence at the entrance of the museum but the vast universe
awaiting us at one of its interior halls.
there to see a show celebrating "the pivotal discoveries that have led us
to greater knowledge of the structure and history of the universe and our place
in it - and to new frontiers for exploration." Paradoxically, and making a
mockery of that racist statue at the entrance, the narrator of the show is Neil
deGrasse Tyson - a distinguished African-American astrophysicist.
at the stars and listened to Tyson telling us of the expanding universe - and I
remembered the Persian poet Sa'di. There is a story in his book Golestan (1258)
in which an astronomer comes home and finds a young man in the compromising
company of his wife. He gets angry and start screaming and hitting the man. A
crowd gathers and people find out the reason for the commotion. Someone in the
crowd turns to the astronomer and says: "What in the world could you know
about the secrets of the heavens when you have no clue what is happening in
your own home?"
today finds itself in a similar situation. It invests massively in space
exploration and even plans for a space army, as Donald Trump has announced, and
yet the terrors of the most recalcitrant barbarism on this Earth is still
unfolding on its territory and along its borders. There is a vast and perhaps
irreconcilable discrepancy between the expansive horizons of the unknown we
wish to explore, and the shrinking history of the troubling truth we wish to
To Be Done?
statue is a monument to the bloody history of genocide and slavery in the
United States and that man riding that horse arrogantly is the very evidence,
the very sign and symbol, of the white supremacy that has ruled this land for
So what are
we to think of such statues, imposing themselves on us even on our way to think
ourselves in a much larger universe?
position of the museum itself on the statue is, of course, entirely
self-referential. At the foot of the statue, I saw a sign that read:
the statue: This statue was unveiled to
the public in 1940 as part of a larger New York State memorial to former NY
governor and US President Theodore Roosevelt. Today, some see the statue as a
heroic group; others, as a symbol of racial hierarchy. You can learn more about
this statue inside the museum and at amnh.org/addressing-the-statue.
In a July
article published by the New York Times the museum's president, Ellen V Futter
was quoted as saying: "Providing context is exactly the role of a
science-based institution." According to the piece, "The Natural
History Museum has already taken a second look at other displays in the same
light: The Old New York diorama that includes a stereotypical depiction of
Lenape leaders, for example, now has captions on the glass explaining why the
display is offensive."
There is no
legislating what should or would happen to these irredeemably racist monuments
to the indignities of white supremacy.
Some are moved to vandalising them in anger, others insist on celebrating
them precisely for the same reasons that others want to bring them down. But
ignoring or altogether removing them from public spaces wipes out the evidence
of past and present crimes and an opportunity for future generations to learn
The task at
hand, I thought, should not be relegated to invested curators of any museum who
make their living by inoculating and keeping such monuments immune from
critical encounters. The task instead is with parents and educators to bring
their students here around this very statue to remember a reality that still
plagues this nation.
we live in a time - the time of Donald Trump - when we must leave a critical
record for our posterity.
It is the
anonymity of those two figures of a Native American and an African-American
that today haunts us more than the mounted racism of the known president. That
anonymity today implicates us all - not just the long and bloody history of
genocide and slavery but the equally painful history of mass migrations that
has today come full circle on the US-Mexican border. Donald Trump is the
walking embodiment of that mounted statue.
statue marks and celebrates the centuries-long genocide of Native Americans and
equally barbaric history of African slavery, the cruelty that the Trump
presidency is perpetrating at the US-Mexican border extends the terror of that
history to other nations that have sought refuge in this land. Generations of
immigrants from Asia, Africa, and Latin America, among them Catholics, Jews,
and now Muslims, have faced the constant terror of white supremacy that has
remained definitive to this country.
midst of this history, and as it assumes ever more cruel manifestations, the
fact is there is no clean and clear space - neither in the US nor anywhere
else. There are museums devoted to the history of slavery from Doha to
Liverpool to Washington DC, while modern-day versions of slavery are evident
all around the globe. In New York, we have a museum examining the history of a
racist statue at its own front door while a president is ruling unabashedly
with the ghastliest racist convictions.
single space we walk into is always already morally implicated. We must walk
ourselves and our children down a path that is deeply afflicted by traces of
human misery on one side and yet blessed with sublime promises of salvation on
As we left
the museum, my mind was drawn to the words of German-Jewish philosopher Walter
Benjamin in his Theses on the Philosophy of History: "There is no document
of civilisation which is not at the same time a document of barbarism."
Hamid Dabashi is the Hagop Kevorkian Professor of
Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University.
Headline: A day at the racist museum