What do monuments say about our values? Panelists at the Black New England Conference will explore the question
The Black New England Conference is coming up at the end of this week. It's a series of panel discussions and presentations about Black history and contemporary issues, from historical Black figures in Portsmouth to past and present projects for reparations.
Among the panels is "Tell It True: Healing Through Public Memory and Memorials," which will explore the roles assigned to memorials and the value they may bring to society.
One of the panelists is Imari Paris Jeffries, the Executive Director of King Boston, a nonprofit that works with the city of Boston to create a memorial and programs commemorating the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King and their work in Boston.
All Things Considered host Peter Biello spoke with Paris Jeffries about the significance of monuments and what he hopes attendees take away from the discussion. Below is a transcript of their conversation.
Peter Biello: Can you tell us a little bit about the monument projects you've been working on in Boston?
Imari Paris Jeffries: It is one of the first monuments built across the country, especially in this moment where we're interrogating the meaning of monuments in our society. So it is a Hank Willis Thomas monument with Mass Design Group. It is called "The Embrace." It was inspired by a photograph of Dr. and Mrs. King embracing when Dr. King discovered that he had won the Nobel Prize. They spent time in Boston as students, and so to have a memorial to honor them in a city in which they called home is especially important during this time.
Peter Biello: And what do you hope people take away from those monuments?
Imari Paris Jeffries: Well, I think we understand Mayor Mitch Landrieu, the mayor of New Orleans, who took down many of the Confederate statues, or all of the Confederate statues, that overlook New Orleans talks about monuments being more than stone and steel, that they are representations of a city or a region's culture. And so he states that what does a memorial of Robert E. Lee, General Lee, looking over in New Orleans say about opportunity for people of color in that city?
What does it say for women? What does it say for newly arrived Americans, immigrants, visitors? And so when we imagine building a statue to honor Dr. and Mrs. King, as well as 65 other civil rights leaders from the region, what are the values associated with this memorial? So, I think we want to be intentional about those values and understand that those values are about inclusion. Those values are about love. They're about belonging. They're about anti-racism.
Peter Biello: You mention statues commemorating the Confederacy coming down. That's where a lot of the public discourse about monuments has been. And I'm wondering what goes through your mind when you hear that another such monument has come down?
Imari Paris Jeffries: I think it gives cities an opportunity for a fresh start to decide what their values are, to decide that markers that discriminate, markers that uphold white supremacy, markers that hold values of slavery and the Confederacy won't be tolerated in places that we can move beyond the symbols of a bygone year that no longer exist. We can imagine a new future for us all.
Peter Biello: So in this panel discussion planned during the Black New England Conference this weekend, what do you hope to touch on when the discussion turns to monuments and their importance in our society?
Imari Paris Jeffries: You know, monuments are physical representations, but there are other things that are also part of the physical representations of culture, right? Culture, like monuments, culture like rituals, reinforce behavior both consciously and subconsciously. And so I think issues like Critical Race Theory in school help people interrogate and ask the questions: What are other cultural items in our society that we no longer want to have?
I think New Hampshire was one of the final states to vote the [Dr. Martin Luther] King holiday into observance as a state. And so the culture, like monuments, holidays, like monuments, rituals again reinforce behavior, reinforce ideals. And so I think that's hopefully one of the things that we'll talk about during the conference this Friday.
Peter Biello: As people leave that panel discussion, what do you hope they continue thinking about or pondering?
Imari Paris Jeffries: That racism is all around us. It's not just these individuals with tiki torches or hoods that persecute people. It's in systems that we wouldn't even consider. And so we're asking people to consider what it means to interrogate ways of being that might oppress people and ask ourselves, all of us: Do they still serve us in a modern society?
Peter Biello: Imari Paris Jeffries, executive director of King Boston and participant in this weekend's Black New England Conference, which starts on Friday. To register, visit blackheritagenh.org. Thank you very much for speaking with me.
Imari Paris Jeffries: Thank you for having me.