Home Art Why It’s Right That the Theodore Roosevelt Statue Comes Down

Why It’s Right That the Theodore Roosevelt Statue Comes Down


Roosevelt statue
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.

Virey 1801 copy
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.

Roosevelt Greek head
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.

Apollo of the Belvedere
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.

Roosevelt African flipped
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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