Why We Need Memorials to Enslaved Persons and Indigenous Peoples
Memorial Day invites us to honor those who gave their lives for this country. Specifically in the US Armed Forces. Because I’m me and because it’s 2021, I can’t help but think of those who never got the opportunity to enlist, but whose sacrifices nonetheless contributed fundamentally to what this country is. I believe their sacrifices should be honored as well. We have no day for this. We have no memorial. But I feel compelled to picture it.
The Vietnam Veterans Memorial lists the names of 58,000 Americans who gave all in that conflict. It takes 86,110 square feet to accommodate that many names (and they are pretty close together). If we were to do this for the 5 million people who were enslaved in this country, people whose sacrifice (albeit against their will) also built this country, it would require roughly 6 million square feet using the same approach, or around .2 square miles.
This is a difficult area to imagine, so I did some Googling. Picture the entire reflecting pool in DC. Widen it a bit and then think about the space all the way from the Lincoln Monument to the Washington Monument (built, in part, by enslaved people), and it would just about fit there. Picture all of that with a list of names in the style of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. That’s what it would take to honor their sacrifice in a similar way.
But we’re just getting started.
If we think about Indigenous peoples, slaughtered to make way for the colonization of the Americas, people whose sacrifice made the whole Western Hemisphere what it is, the numbers go up considerably. To accommodate the 20 million names of those whose deaths paved the way for what we have, you would need roughly 30 million square feet, or roughly 1 square mile.
Again, 1 square mile is a fairly difficult thing to imagine. At least for me. I’m terrible with these sorts of visualizations, so I initially imagine a city block. But it’s more like 400 city blocks.
Picture most of Central Park, all the way up to 96th street, except it’s all the Vietnam Veterans Memorial with Indigenous peoples’ names (it’s amazing how often we forget they had names). Or visit the Grand Canyon and look down, and fully half of the canyon floor is a memorial to the dead.
For those of you living in Philly, picture a swath of land spanning the Delaware to the Schuylkill, and from Walnut Street all the way up to 676, and all of it is the Vietnam Veterans Memorial with the names of Indigenous peoples wiped out to accommodate us.
I did some math around these things not because I want to shame those who died for this country but because I wanted to honor them and because I wanted to make sure I was counting accurately. Because we cannot truly honor those who chose to die for this country without acknowledging those who were forced to. We, in fact, dishonor their sacrifice by fantasizing about what this country is and what it has done and who has been sacrificed along with those who chose to sacrifice.
If we want America to live up to the sacrifice those heroes made, then we must acknowledge what America is and how it was built and who did the building.
If we want America to live up to the sacrifice those heroes made, then we must acknowledge what America is and how it was built and who did the building. Then, and only then, can we move forward to create the America that I believe those heroes would feel was worth dying for.
And I truly believe building memorials that honor those sacrifices and having holidays that invite us to reflect on and atone for those sacrifices would remind us where we came from in a way that might motivate us to move together to where our values want us to be.