graphic with screenshot of NYT article about plaque with KKK figure at West Point
screenshot of NYT article

Plaque With KKK Figure Prompts a Question About Remembering History

Various news sources reported yesterday on a bronze plaque at West Point that depicts a hooded figure with the words Ku Klux Klan between other images of two Confederate generals. My immediate reaction was outrage—both that it exists and also that the school wants to “take it under advisement” to decide whether to remove it. Again, the legacy not only of enslavement but of enduring racial injustice is long and wide and insidious. It involves not only people far away and from long ago but those who perpetuate injustice now and who ignore or fail to see images like this one in their midst. 

Eventually, I saw an image of this plaque in context. It occupies a small space within a huge set of three bronze panels. Over those panels are the words “The History of the United States of America.” What’s unclear to me from what I’ve seen and read so far—is all of this a commemoration? Or is the inclusion of this hooded figure an attempt to show the horrors of our history alongside the goodness? Is this an image that celebrates white supremacy or one that condemns it? 

My sense is that this imagery is meant to celebrate American history, not shine a light on the dark and oppressive aspects of it. If that’s the case, then the image should not only be removed but West Point should also publicly apologize to the thousands of cadets who have been shaped and formed in its shadow. Furthermore, repair would mean creating spaces—and images—that welcome the diverse citizens of the United States into these halls in preparation to serve our nation. 

But this plaque also prompts the question of how to do the work of remembering—visually and otherwise—the full and real history of the United States, a history that includes both the horrors of lynching and the glories of liberation. We need to not only celebrate but also mourn our history in order to write an ongoing story of a nation of liberty and justice for all.

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