Saving Teddy

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By Najat Madry

Monuments are funny things. Living our day-to-day lives, we go past them and give a casual glance or maybe don’t even notice them at all. Visitors or tourists seeing such objects for the first time snap pictures or these days, selfies that can be posted on Instagram to flaunt themselves in front of their followers. But do we ever take a moment to try and understand why these people became immortalized in cast bronze or copper to begin with?

What does it take to be remembered?

On June 21, 2020, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio (aka Warren Wilhelm, Jr.) endorsed the American Museum of Natural History’s decision to remove a 126 ft bronze statue depicting Teddy Roosevelt, our 26th president, riding on his horse with African and Native American males on either side of him. The statue stands front and center on the steps leading up to the museum’s entrance. The decision to remove the statue arose in the aftermath of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests that have been taking place in the city and around the country. Mr. de Blasio and the museum director decided to further stoke public opinion by claiming the statue is racist due to the fact that Teddy is riding high while the African and Native American are on foot and following behind him.

Ironically, the entire museum is dedicated to Teddy Roosevelt, and the statue is emblematic of who he was and what he stood for as a naturalist and explorer: the original American Rough Rider. Above the museum entrance on the facade is a dedication to President Roosevelt saying:

State of New York memorial to
Theodore Roosevelt
A great leader of the youth of America
In energy and fortitude in the faith of our fathers
In the defense of our rights of the people
In the love and the conservation of nature
And of the best in life and in man

This past Sunday, the Young Republicans of New York organized a protest to stop the museum from removing the statue. The karmic joke in all of this is, Teddy was a Democrat, yet it was Republicans who braved the brutal summer heat to come to his rescue. I was determined to participate in the protest. Like the 200 other people who came out with their flags held high, I had enough of the insanity of it all. On the opposite side of Central Park West was a BLM protest made up nearly entirely of white protestors (and one African American girl) chanting “Black Lives Matter.” Hitchcock couldn’t come up with more of an ironic twist for a plot.

Looking up at the statue, I discovered that it is truly beautiful. The sculptor, James Earle Fraser, genuinely captured Teddy’s bravado and the sweat on his brow. The African and Native men appear as loyal, trusted allies ready to set forth with Teddy on the next great adventure. The sad part is that I never noticed any of these details until the threat of the statue being taken away forced me to look. That’s usually the case, isn’t it? We take something for granted until we experience the threat of losing it. Today’s America is under such a threat, not just of our memories, and explorations, but our story.

In 1918 Russia, during the Bolshevik revolution, part of Lenin’s propaganda was to destroy all of the country’s monuments. Monuments are points of reference and place markers of history. Some may say that because we have written history, there is no need for monuments, and that might true, but would we have known about the written history of the Ancient Egyptians if the physical remains had never existed to point the way? The library of Alexandria fell into the ocean. Does anyone speak Ancient Egyptian today? If the Giza plateau, all the pyramids down the Nile, the Sphinx, and the Abu Simbel temple complex (named after the little boy playing in the sand who uncovered it) had not been discovered, Ancient Egypt would be a mythical legend recited by the Ancient Greeks. For centuries the enormous Sphinx statue was buried underneath the sand until the dust of time washed the sand away. The Rosetta Stone (a physical stone slab) was the tool that made it possible to translate Egyptian hieroglyphics.

The point of Marxism or Leninism is not just to destroy oppressive history but to recreate a new and “better” society according to those in power. In other words, a memory wipe. Wiping memory becomes a form of control. Who determines history? Who decides what is “good” versus “bad”? No doubt, history has been co-opted many times. People think the American Civil War was fought to free the slaves, which is not true. There were slaves in Northern states.

Here’s the thing: Monuments are permanent markers and references of history. They are there for debate, to discuss and to learn from, not just to memorialize. Otherwise, history is doomed to repeat itself, and humanity continually has to start over. Look at the decision to remove Woodrow Wilson’s name from various institutions, which has brought up the fact that it was Wilson who wrote the Federal Reserve and the federal income tax into law. Clearly, someone does not want YOU to remember those decisions…. A century later, we can see how destructive those laws have been for the United States, and NOW WE REMEMBER.

After the museum protest, I found a food truck and decided to get something to eat. The truck had a little folding table with two chairs. There was a young girl wearing a mask sitting by the table waiting for her order, and I asked her if I could have the other seat. She kindly replied yes, and I struck up a conversation with her. I asked her about the statue and how she felt about the museum removing it. She felt the decision was justified, saying the African was a slave and the Native was oppressed. Quote: “It’s racist.” I replied:

“Did you know that Teddy Roosevelt was the first American president to have a black man, Booker T. Washington, to dinner at the White House?”

Umm, no.

“Did you know Teddy Roosevelt was a conservationist?”

Umm, no.

“Did you know the teddy bear was named after Roosevelt because he refused to kill a bear?”

Umm, no….

No, she didn’t know. I didn’t bother to say Roosevelt was a Democrat. The child would have had a breakdown. The young people of America today need a Teddy Roosevelt. A fearless leader who sets forth into the wilderness to challenge his strength and boundaries. Someone who stands for principle with a sense of dignity instead of being nonproductive and destructive. To quote Teddy, “Only those are fit to live who do not fear to die and none are fit to die who have shrunk from the joy of life and the duty of life.” No wonder de Blasio hates the very memory of Teddy.

America today is at a turning point for a reason. Part of human evolution is to awaken and advance our consciousness. No country on this planet is perfect. There is good and bad in every country’s story and those lessons are worth saving. If we don’t have those points of reference to remind us of the good, the bad, and the ugly, then history will be lost.

I know the American story is worth keeping.