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Now Do Lincoln

Protesters are tearing down statues of Columbus and other villains of history. The true test will come when they reckon with their heroes.


Running along the southern border of North Carolina, U.S. Route 74 stretches from the state’s mountains in the west all the way to the Atlantic Ocean. And as numerous green signs reminded me while driving it last week, its official state designation is still “Andrew Jackson Highway”—an honor granted to the seventh United States president in 1963, in part because of a low-simmering feud with South Carolina about Jackson’s true birthplace. But after driving east for a couple hours, a new green sign appears at the Robeson County line. This one reads, “American Indian Highway.”

Robeson County is home to the Lumbee Tribe, one of the eight state-recognized tribes that managed to survive the Jackson-authored Indian Removal Act of 1830. That a Southern state government would construct a new highway that drove through the heart of its largest Native community and name it after one of the main architects of Native American genocide is outrageous but, sadly, not particularly surprising. The Native population in my home state fought for years to alter the name, signing petition after petition, until finally, in 2015, the Department of Transportation approved the change. Robert Chavis, one of the main organizers, wrote in The Robesonian at the time that the new name was designed to “honor all the different tribes that had lost loved ones on the Trail of Tears.”

The sight of the signs returned to me on Tuesday night after a group of people in Richmond, Virginia, splattered the city’s statue of Christopher Columbus in red paint, ripped the hunk of metal from its base, and set it aflame. Once it extinguished, they spray-painted “BLM” on its base and chucked the statue into Fountain Lake. Five hundred miles north, a group of Bostonians knocked the head clean off their statue of Columbus, the same one that was covered in red paint and “Black Lives Matter” in 2015. Completing the trifecta on Wednesday night, a Native-led coalition tore down the Columbus statue at the Minnesota State Capitol. The toppling was praised by Lieutenant Governor Peggy Flanagan, a citizen of White Earth Nation, who said in a statement that the statue, “was a constant reminder that our systems were not built by or for Native people or people of color, but in many cases, to exclude, erase, and eliminate us.”

Those statues towered over public lands, were maintained with public tax dollars, and, ultimately, were torn down by the public’s hands. Like I did when University of North Carolina students toppled their campus’s infamous Confederate statue, Silent Sam, I drew a great deal of joy watching the battered metal carcass of Columbus drift to the shallow lake floor. It was a community-led rejection of a symbol that has long purported to represent the European right to “settle” an already settled land. The act, born of anger and grief, felt like a mass expression of triumph. In Virginia, people cheered and screamed as they knocked the ode to the colonizer from its perch and hurled it into the water. In Minnesota, they sang in celebration and reflected on what it meant to tear it down.

But just as I did last week on my drive past the “American Indian Highway” markers, I had another feeling while watching the destruction of the statues: fatigue—not of what came before, but of what I know lies ahead. Both the Route 74 renaming and the destruction of the three Columbus statues are small dots on a map of atrocity that spans the country. North Carolina only agreed to overlay the official designation to Jackson with that of “American Indian Highway” where Route 74 cut through Robeson County. For those driving along the highway in the rest of the state, it is the name of a genocidal president that still blurs by. And in most corners of the United States, it is still Columbus Day, not Indigenous Peoples Day, that is celebrated in the fall.

Removing statues of Columbus, who was recognized in his time for his barbaric treatment and enslavement of the Taino people, should be the easy part; so should scrubbing Jackson’s name and face from America’s highways, campuses, and currency. A statue to Columbus bears no religious or spiritual meaning, and neither does a road sign for Jackson. They are often cheaply produced and hastily erected. They’re not complex reminders of a complex past: They’re glorifications.

Still, it’s never easy, of course. Once a place as anti-Indigenous and anti-Black as America declares these men legends and brands them in their history books, it is nearly impossible to convince a public systematically educated to ignore Native people that these figures were responsible for horrific, avoidable violence.

The typical response from cultural conservatives in the days following a toppled statue is cyclical at this point. After moving beyond, Our heritage!, they try to tie the offended party in a logical knot: If you remove Jackson and Columbus, who’s next? George Washington? Teddy Roosevelt? Abraham Lincoln? Surely you don’t agree with tearing down these complex men too?

Yes, actually.

There’s a joke in Rick & Morty that involves a character known as Abradolf Lincler, a mashup between Hitler and Lincoln. To the standard white American viewer, which is exactly the audience it was probably written for, the joke likely lands without a hiccup. Here is a character that combines the Ultimate Good Man with the Ultimate Bad Man; have a laugh, let’s move on. To a Native viewer—specifically, to citizens of the Dakota nations, Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribe, and Diné, Apache, and Pueblo nations—the joke likely lands a bit differently, given that Lincoln was America’s chief executive as its military forces massacred and enacted forced removal policies against these and other tribal nations. The same is true of Mount Rushmore, where President Trump will spend his Fourth of July watching fireworks pop and sparkle over Tȟuŋkášila Šákpe, one of Indian Country’s many desecrated sacred sites. This history is present in every remaining gaudy display honoring Teddy Roosevelt. It’s even the case for the hallowed Lincoln Memorial. All of these remembrances were designed to be partial—to remember the side of history that the U.S. wants to acknowledge. They are a physical embodiment of America’s desire for selective memory and serve as just as much of a cover for colonialism as “Andrew Jackson Highway” or the countless Columbus statues. And they, too, will eventually face their day of atonement.

The question now—and the reason for the fatigue—is: When? If it took 500 years for some Americans to begin disavowing Columbus and 200 years for North Carolina to raise an eyebrow at Jackson, how long will it take for the same public hands that tossed the statue in Fountain Lake to deconstruct the mythos around those who are uniformly viewed as paragons of American progress? Lincoln, Roosevelt, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and countless others still honored across our landscapes are just as responsible for genocide, land theft, and forced assimilation as Trump’s hero. What if we really reckoned with them and their legacies? As my colleague Osita Nwanevu recently wrote, “There’s no telling, really, what we might do as a country if we were willing and able to take in everything in full—if we could review the whole sweep of what we are and have been. But more police precincts would probably be set ablaze.” More statues, too.