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The Theodore Roosevelt Equestrian Monument by James Earle Fraser (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

Say their names: Gus Grey Mountain; Gerald Crane; Raymond Sprang; Blanche Wahnee; Helene M. LaRaque and Charmeine Lyons. All these Indigenous activists (identified in news reports of the period as Cherokee-Seneca, Navajo, and Comanche) were in their twenties on June 15, 1971 when they carried out a successful action against the Theodore Roosevelt Equestrian Monument at the American Museum of Natural History. Nearly 50 years later, the museum announced that the long-detested monumental sculpture would be removed.

It took the combined efforts of brilliant scholars such as Donna Haraway, Emily Martin, Mabel O. Wilson, and Audra Simpson to make the case for its removal, delivered with persistent activism by the American Indian Community House, the 2015 Black Out Tour in 2015 and three years of organized protests by Decolonize This Place. Even then a national uprising had to take place to make it happen.

But no one is satisfied. Protestors see it as only a first step toward rectifying the many wrongs of the institution. The right variously consider the statue removal to be an act of the Taliban or Communism, and they staged their own protest this past weekend. A small crowd waved flags and chanted “NYPD.” In the ensuing storm of social media posts made since the announcement two themes have emerged that suggest it’s still important to make the case for removal. Not to mention, critic Holland Cotter suggested placing the immense monument in the narrow corridor space of an exhibit explicitly designed to claim it did not display racial hierarchy.

Many (mostly white) people are saying that the problems with the statue are the African and Indigenous figures and that if it just consisted of Roosevelt, it would be acceptable. In the New York Times article announcing the decision, museum president Ellen V. Futter takes this position, seeing problems only with the “hierarchical composition,” while the museum continues to honor Roosevelt as “a pioneering conservationist.” In many social media posts I’ve read, a surprising number of (mostly white) New Yorkers and other visitors are saying that they never really looked at the monument before.

Maybe we can — finally — look at this statue. It towers over any viewer at 14 feet, 9 inches high, on a substantial base. Sculptor James Earle Fraser first intended it to be even larger, at 20 feet. In short, visual and physical dominance was intended. That dominance is conveyed to any viewer in a series of steps. It’s unmistakable that the white man on the horse has power over the African and Indigenous figures, conveyed in every detail from his clothing to his horse. As the artist Titus Kaphar learned when he took his children to the museum, young people immediately see the unfairness conveyed by having the president ride, while his companions walk.  Sometimes I think the entire function of formal, state-sanctioned education is to grind out that sense of fairness from people and replace it with the acceptance of hierarchy in our social order.

Profiles of Apollo, an African and an Orang-Utan. From JJ Virey, Natural History of the Human Race (1801).

The monument is all about hierarchy, presented as what American Museum of Natural History exhibits of the period (1926–45) called the “distinct races of mankind.” Henry Fairfield Osborn, the eugenicist and racist director of the museum, insisted on Fraser’s selection as the sculptor for the monument, circulating to the board a photograph of his “The End of the Trail,” (1918) which dramatically depicted the theme of the so-called “vanishing Indian.” The (false) claim Osborn adhered to was that there were multiple species of human, with unchanging and distinct characteristics, and distinctions among the species were made visible in the shape of one’s head. Fraser’s “Roosevelt” is a material primer for this theory.

In a photograph, I’ve juxtaposed Roosevelt’s sculpted head with the “Greek” skull that exemplified whiteness, as circulated in Josiah Nott’s racist best-seller Types of Mankind (1854). My point is not to prove that Fraser was influenced by this specific source but to make apparent to present-day viewers the visual vocabulary of racism, that operates in arenas beyond skin color and nationality. Notice how both have an absurdly straight and long forehead. Even more absurd is that the comparison is of one statue to another. Nott claimed skull shape revealed permanent and unchanging types of human. However, his “Greek” skull was not human but the imagined skull of the classical sculpture known as the Apollo Belvedere. If the science is outdated, it still exerts its force every time someone uses the expression “highbrow” to mean cultivated or learned, reprising a racialized hierarchy of intelligence measured by skulls.

The head of Roosevelt montaged with Nott’s drawing of a “Greek” skull imagined from the Apollo Belvedere (photo by the author)

Following the revolution in Haiti against slavery (1791–1804), to be white was to be kin to a divine being, whereas to be African was something other than human. The constructed homology of “white” skin with the white marble of the statues was a historical accident. In antiquity, statues were brightly painted but time and the elements had eroded their color. The “whiteness” of the classical statue is an imagined projection. Its “skull” is pure fantasy — because statues don’t have skulls. These statues are not examples of racism, they are its form. The resulting “whiteness” is not a neutral variant of the human but a fantasy constructed in imaginary relation to classical sculpture.

The Apollo of the Belvedere (at the Vatican Museums) (photo by Livioandronico2013 via Wikimedia Commons)

I want to be clear: Fraser’s sculpture would be no less offensive if it were a single figure of Roosevelt. It would still exemplify these racialized fantasies. The whiteness on display here does not think of itself as being connected to other humans. Philosopher Sylvia Wynter calls this “monohumanism,” a way of thinking in which being human is an exclusionary category. To cut out the African and Indigenous figures is to act out the logic of this singular way of seeing. To see the white figure alone in this monocular vision is, as they say, a feature not a bug. My point is not just that this sculpture is exceptionally offensive but that it effectively and monolithically represents what whiteness wants. When many are saying that they did not previously notice the statue, or were not aware it was offensive, it shows these monocular ways of seeing remain in force.

Further, this way of seeing is entirely consistent with the ongoing uprising. If the appalling video of George Floyd’s murder made anything apparent, it was that the police did not see him as human. In one of the few cases where a police officer has testified in relation to a shooting, former officer Jason van Dyke, who killed Laquan McDonald in Chicago, testified emotionally about Laquan’s “huge white eyes just staring right through me.” McDonald was 17 and van Dyke shot him 16 times. He did not see a person. He saw the racist stereotype he had been trained to see by segregated white culture in general and by the police in particular.

The head of the African figure on the Roosevelt Monument juxtaposed with Josiah Nott’s drawing of an African skull (reversed for comparative purposes). Photo: author

Museums like the American Museum of Natural History train white people in this way of seeing. At the time Fraser was working on his sculpture, a new diorama of African people opened. Using the racist name “Pygmy” to designate a range of peoples in the Congo basin, the display appeared in the Hall of Primates. A not dissimilar diorama exists in the Hall of African Peoples today. Where, visitors sometimes ask, are the European or other “white” peoples in the Museum? At the time the statue was commissioned, the Hall of the Age of Man housed “exhibits for the living and extinct races of men.,” to quote the museum’s Annual Report for 1926.  Later named for Osborn, the hall exemplified his peculiar thesis, offered to the eugenicist Galton Society in 1928, that “the human stock branched off from the common stock, or human-like animals, long before the specialized habits of the man-like apes had profoundly modified their anatomy.”  Osborn believed the Nordic form of the human emerged somewhere in Central Asia, having no connection with Africa at all. He sent expensive expeditions to the region in search of fossil evidence. The Hall of the Age of Man was quietly closed once Osborn retired, although many of its artefacts can still be found in odd corners of the museum. In his preface to the original white replacement panic book The Passing of the Great Race (1916), Osborn claimed:

Race implies heredity, and heredity implies all the moral, social, and intellectual characteristics and traits which are the springs of politics and government. Conservation of that [Nordic] race … has given us the true spirit of Americanism.”

Conserving the Nordic race is to make America great again.

In continuing to use this term “conservation” to defend Roosevelt, the museum reveals what the leading US eugenicist Harry Laughlin called the “natural affinity between environmental and racial conservationists.” Likewise, Roosevelt’s friend Madison Grant was on the board of the American Museum of Natural History; wrote The Passing of the Great Race (1916), leading to his successful campaign for racialized limits on immigration ; and was instrumental in the conservation of the buffalo and the redwoods. For these men saving Nordic whiteness and conserving “noble” forms of nature were one and the same project. To say Roosevelt was a conservationist is another way to say he was, as is amply documented, a racist.

Removing the statue is a beginning, not an end. It represents a crack in what Frantz Fanon called “a world compartmentalized, Manichean, immobile — a world of statues.” There is now movement and a movement, a reversal of the Manichean hierarchy that placed white over Black as if good over evil, and a challenge to segregation. That’s why the statues are falling. For those identified and identifying as white, it’s time, finally, to open the other eye, to stop fixing on the other(s) and to look at ourselves.

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Nick Mirzoeff

Nicholas Mirzoeff is professor of media, culture and communication at NYU. His book The Appearance of Black Lives Matter is available for free download at namepublications.org.

16 replies on “Why It’s Right That the Theodore Roosevelt Statue Comes Down”

  1. A recent Hyperallergic article cited that it was engaged in “the cultural discussion”. Which is laughable because of only shoring up its preening editorial bias. This article is devoid of critique from an aesthetic and historical perspective. The author handpicks some rehearsed postmodern cultural caterwaul, which even in that is pretty tenuous and otherwise fail.

    If you’re going to write an article about a statue and a monument then judge it as such. If you’re going to pretend to foster a “discussion” then engender a “dialogue”.

    1. I agree absolutely. Anyone can make statements if they aren’t required to show facts. If only “perfect” individuals could be memorialized, there wouldn’t be a stature in the world.

    2. I agree. To me to bring up Greek gods (Roosevelt looks far more like a hunky JL David hero to me than anything) and stereotypical musings about other races from the prior century is irrelevant. The African and the Native American are idealized and beautiful–handsome, virile, proud in expression and in body (oh what muscles!) very much Greek and idealized. Many would have the museum ultimately taken down as one could see racism or white supremacy in every corner of it and yes, it might sadly come to this. My idea (which comes too late) is to keep the statue AND add one or two other statues in a dialogue — all beautifully done in the same style but creating a conversation–not the removal of any meaningful discussion–I’d suggest one with the Native American on the horse, another with the African on the horse… And let’s put up a plaque discussing the issues and how modern society can look upon a man (like all famous men) with clay feet–imperfect but also doing much good. I remember reading how Audubon ATE some of his samples and yet the world of bird documentation AND preservation would not be here without him. Roosevelt certainly had ideas not PC in today’s world so do we erase him and the good he did do–he and best pal John Muir are the REASON we have preserved National Parks today. Nobody has a perfectly clean history–so let’s have a discussion instead of a destruction. This to me is not progress — instead discussion is being erased. My view is keep the art but add MORE art to encourage discussion and thought.

  2. Your arguments dont work, i say we keep our history as is… and improve and learn from it. You need to remember your history or you will be destined to repeat it

  3. All true.
    But here’s the funny thing, the uncomfortable irony for many of the protesters.
    Yes the long gestation [like about 2500 years] of “Western” identity-neutral liberal modernity is horribly stained by racist and religious and nationalistic violence.
    But it is also the first socio-political model in history – in over 5 millennia since cities emerged in southern Mesopotamia – which is in its pure form identity-neutral, color-blind.
    The reality is that all traditional societies are variations on “identity politics”, where one or more identity or other [whether by race, place, religion, gender] is incorporated in the ruling ideology.
    Yes all Western countries still harbor vestiges of racism but the reality is their respect for, tolerance of “identity” is way ahead of many predominantly non-“Western” countries.
    Look at opportunities for women for a start.
    And you want non-white racism? Try Rwanda. And yes the racism there was in part stoked by savage Western imperialist policy.

  4. “The sculptor of the statue, James Earle Fraser, stated the intent with these words: “The two figures at [Roosevelt’s] side are guides symbolizing the continents of Africa and America, and if you choose may stand for Roosevelt’s friendliness to all races.” – Wiki article

    but I guess the WHITE author of this article knows better. White savor complex strikes again. when will you take your foot off the necks of POC people

  5. The statue is hierarchical to be sure. Pretty over the top, in a Luis Jimenez way, which is part of what I like about it. Also a bit cringe worthy, granted.

    The salient point here is that it is a portrait and all portraits are hierarchical. It’s another way of saying that it is composed, that it has a composition.

    Those looking to splatter, deface and destroy art are vandals. Those people creating arguments and excuses for that behavior are doing us no favors and are guilty of covering for independent, non-communal destruction of culture and art.

    1. No! It’s cringe-worthy to you and others, and not cringe-worthy to others. Let’s be honest about this, okay?

      1. Cringe-worthy may be overstating it a bit. However, Hyperallergic citing phrenology is certainly cringe-worthy. I never made that leap and have been familiar with that piece since childhood, as are many New Yorkers. Do you think that many generations have been damaged by the experience of it? At least it is more inclusive than most memorial sculpture. Keep in mind that Teddy was a bit over the top himself, as I understand it.

        1. Good point! Teddy WAS over the top! He was a larger than life figure and saw himself that way and the artist in a sense captured that–with dignity (I think) but there is a bit of an amusement in the grandeur not lost on anyone who knew the history of the man. This would be something to put into an informational plaque or which might inform art that could have been established as discourse with the existing statue as it’s very valid! Think of any of the French “Louis”s with big hair and big red shoes–yes, they did both awful and great things (like Teddy I’ll venture) but there is a hint of knowing viewer amusement in their own over-the-topness. I fear that those wanting this statue out have little knowledge of the man depicted or….as it was put earlier–the sense of artistic composition (and you can look to any religious painting to see that Jesus is often bigger, more radiant, larger than the general populace…shall we take down all Jesus iconography for the same reasons?). Too late to undo this ill-informed decision… but the larger-than-life ego and grand Teddy-ness is a good point!

  6. It is no fantasy that there are distinctive caucasoid and negroid features, no matter how many exaggerations of the the differences are adduced to make a case for their being some kind of “racialized fantasies” and “social construct.” DNA confirms the difference.

  7. Not much of an academic wordsmith here, but would feel comfortable in making note how no one seems to be thinking how all of this destruction, hate (true hate for our country the hate towards “white people” or “white males” and to some, just coming off as hatred towards themselves ? Does anyone think how most common USA citizen , whatever race, is seeing all this as? I feel like NY and it’s media out of touch (for a few years now with its mainland audiences as It always has been, but now it’s kinda really not a good look, not to mention hypocritical. (One day we’re seeing an beautiful Kehinde Wiley monument erected , quite beautiful indeed, The next we’re seeing the past leaders toppled. I love hyperallergic, I like Canada where it’s NYC based editors/officers work, are actually from, But i fear the backlash . It’s already happening and it’s sad.
    This country has mostly ALWAYS meant well, I truly believe this. Change is needed but dismantling So much of the history is disturbing to say the least. Maybe I’m missing the point ? I doubt it.

    AJ
    S.F. CA USA

  8. Why don’t we change the names of all the CA cities and and streets and business! Those missionary assholes!

  9. Why would u even include this horrible drawing of whatever we glanced Over in this article ? Why would u being up that truly toxic historical imagery whatever it was?? Ur either a fool, a hypocrite , or both .

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