The massive crowd reeked of sweat, as the July sun beat down on the throng of people standing outside the American Museum of Natural History. The scent of grilled meat and spices wafted through the air — a kabob vendor had parked his truck right next to us. My little sister tugged at my sleeve.
“I want ice cream.”
She pointed to the ice cream vendor near the entrance.
“I’m not your parent, ask them,” I replied, wiping the sweat from my upper lip as she turned to my mom and dad instead.
I was excited to go inside, to see the place that one of my favorite childhood movies, The Night at Museum, had brought to life.
And then, as the horde of people in front of us dwindled, I saw the statue of Theodore Roosevelt. Instantly, I felt like there was something wrong. There were three men there, instead of just Roosevelt, which is how the movie had depicted it.
And the men were very much beneath Roosevelt.
Also, I thought the statue was supposed to be inside the museum.
As we got closer to the entrance, more details emerged, details that made me extremely uncomfortable. One of the men was clearly a Native American, the other, an African American. Both had eyes that looked largely defeated; they seemed to have accepted their status as beneath that of Roosevelt. Meanwhile, Roosevelt’s eyes seemed to emanate a sense of dominance.
I had always liked Theodore Roosevelt. My US History teacher had always praised him for being very progressive for his time, emphasizing his contributions to wildlife and nature conservation: he had helped save the Grand Canyon and Muir Woods, among other natural lands. According to him, Roosevelt had played a major role in bettering America.
But looking at this statue, I was suddenly wary of this man, who seemed to assert his superior status over his fellow human beings.
It turns out that I was not the only one who felt this way.
In 1920, the New York State Legislature wished to memorialize the contributions of late President Theodore Roosevelt to nature conservation and science. And so they asked some people to construct a statue in his honor, right outside the Museum of Natural History. It seems quite simple.
However, pulling back the curtain on the history of this memorial reveals a much uglier story.
After Roosevelt’s death, Henry Fairfield Osborn made plans for a Theodore Roosevelt Memorial.
Osborn had been the president of the Museum for 25 years, and, in addition to being a paleontologist and geologist, he was the champion of eugenics.
A pseudoscience that was supported not only by Osborn, but by Roosevelt himself, eugenics established that there was a superior race, namely the Caucasian race, and it should be encouraged to expand through reproduction. Additionally, all other races, which were viewed as inferior, should be eliminated because of their undesirable traits, and therefore their reproduction should be discouraged.
Osborn’s beliefs revealed the epitome of racism: he believed that there were three categories: “Caucasian, Mongoloid, and Negroid”, in order of superiority. He described them as “three absolutely distinct stocks, which in zoology would be given the rank of species, if not of genera.” — She Has Her Mother’s Laugh: The Powers, Perversions, and Potential of Heredity, by Carl Zimmer
Osborn basically viewed nonwhites as animals, only to be kept alive when they served the white man.
Both Osborn and Roosevelt were friends with a man named Madison Grant, who happened to be the author of a book entitled The Passing of the Great Race. This was a book on eugenics, which is basically ‘science-backed’ (not real science) racism.
“The laws of nature require the obliteration of the unfit and human life is valuable only when it is of use to the community or race.” — Madison Grant, The Passing of the Great Race.
This book has an introduction written by Henry Fairfield Osborn, and a book jacket endorsement by our former president, Theodore Roosevelt.
This is the very same book that inspired Adolf Hitler to rid Germany of those he deemed to be of an inferior race.
Yes, you read that correctly.
So while Madison Grant and Henry Fairfield Osborn were the epitome of racism, Roosevelt was not so far behind. In addition to being a supporter of their works, the late President thought very little of both the African American population as well as of the Native American population.
In regards to the latter, he claimed, “I don’t go so far as to think that the only good Indians are dead Indians, but I believe nine out of ten are, and I shouldn’t like to inquire too closely into the case of the tenth.”
He was no friend of the Native Americans; rather, he viewed them as an obstacle to overcome. Roosevelt also stated, in regards to indigenous people, “We must turn them loose, hardening our hearts to the fact that many will sink, exactly as many will swim.”
So, unfortunately, Roosevelt would never have fallen in love with Sacagawea, as he did in the Night At the Museum movies.
Furthermore, according to Andrew Ross, the Director of American Studies Program at New York University (NYU), any conservation of land and natural parks that Roosevelt initiated was at expense of the death or removal of indigenous people (5). Those that didn’t surrender, those that didn’t conform to Roosevelt’s plans for American settlement, would wind up dead.
Although Roosevelt saw little, if any, benefit of keeping Native Americans alive, he undoubtedly saw the potential for free labor in African Americans: “While the native blacks, although many of them do fairly well in unskilled labor … But most of the natives are still wild pagans, and many of them are unchanged in the slightest particular from what their forefathers were during the countless ages when they alone were the heirs of the land — a land which they were utterly powerless in any way to improve. Some of the savages we saw wore red blankets, and in deference to white prejudice draped them so as to hide their nakedness.” — African Game Trails, by Theodore Roosevelt.
Clearly, Roosevelt was not as ‘progressive’ as many make him out to be.
The sense of discomfort ignited by the statue is not accidental, nor is it unique to me.
“I teach a course on monuments and when my students look at this statue, they’re immediately suspicious of the hierarchical representation. They also point out that we’re used to seeing Plains Indians riding horses when they’re shown in statues — not walking alongside someone! Even within the familiar idioms of Western art, the statue is odd.” — Scott Manning Stevens, Professor of English and Native American & Indigenous Studies at Syracuse University.
This memorial has incited controversy for a long time now. In 2016, protesters maintained that the memorial was “a stark embodiment of the white supremacy that Roosevelt himself espoused and promoted.”
Many academics have argued that the statue should have been removed because of its racist message. Philip Deloria, Professor of History at Harvard University, revealed that, as a descendant of the Native American Dakota tribe, the memorial evoked pain, as it reminded him of the many, many Native Americans who had been killed in the making of this country. Mabel O. Wilson, Professor of Architecture and African American Studies, Columbia University, explained that the memorial carried a theme of “taming the savage” by illustrating the domestication of the horse upon which Roosevelt sits, as well as of the Native American and African American.
“With the Native American, the gun is pointed down, which says that the Indian wars are over and they’ve lost. With the African, the rifle is still up, which suggests that the African continent has not yet been fully conquered. So [the statue is] a narrative of empire and conquest, of Africa and the New World, by the white European.” — Mabel O. Wilson
However, any calls to take down the statue were drowned out by those who continue to defend the memorial. According to Harriet F. Senie, the Director of City College of New York, all three men — Roosevelt, the Native American, and the African American — were “intended to be heroic.”
She claims that James Earle Fraser, who sculpted the memorial, said that the two men on either side of Roosevelt were allegorical figures “intended to illustrate Roosevelt’s friendliness to all races.”
Fortunately, Senie’s view, as well as the view of the many other Caucasian Americans who have defended the statue (including Donald Trump, who of course recently tweeted his opinion on the subject) is no longer the deciding factor in whether to keep the statue in its current place, right outside the entrance to the Museum of Natural History.
The statue will be removed in the near future, as New York Mayor Bill de Blasio clearly stated:
“The American Museum of Natural History has asked to remove the Theodore Roosevelt statue because it explicitly depicts Black and Indigenous people as subjugated and racially inferior.”
This statue really should have been taken down years ago.
It was not created to display the ‘heroes’ of American history.
It was designed to display the ‘racial hierarchy’, as perceived by eugenics-supporters.
It is not a mistake that the memorial makes us uncomfortable; that is the very intention with which the memorial was sculpted.
Furthermore, this memorial isn’t inside the museum, where people could decide whether they wished to view it or not.
This is a statue on the streets of New York, and it memorializes not only the largely-controversial legacy of Roosevelt, but the pain and suffering endured by both the African Americans and Native Americans at the hands of colonists. It is a painful slap in the face to any African American or Native American who sees it.
And there is more than enough pain in the world without this statue immortalizing that pain.
Previously published on medium
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