Empty Plinth at Art Museum Drive & Wyman Park Drive

It is amazing to me how quickly I can fall into a routine. It helps me with my anxiety, having a sturdy plan that plays out day in, day out. When we went into quarantine back in March I had my days basically completely filled in a week, and they’ve largely stayed that way until last week when my schedule freed up with the end of summer teaching and formalized teacher training. I decided to take a week off of any kind of work, which was great, but I was back at the emails and meeting planning by 7am this fine Monday morning. I’m happy to be back at work.

The problem isn’t labor itself. That’s what makes us human. The problem is alienated labor, the only kind that exists under capitalism, unfortunately. My favorite part about my job is these in-between times, when I’m still getting paid, but my time is largely my own, and I have the space to think and write and be curious. Don’t get me wrong–teaching at a university is work in the capitalist sense, but it’s the best job I’ve ever had, by a long shot. “Summers off” isn’t quite right, but compared to every other job I’ve ever had, we totally have summers off. This is a controversial statement amongst academics, but for me, it’s true.

I still organized my days on my vacation, but solely around my running/bicycling schedule. I snapped this picture on my Sunday run, but I could have just as easily snapped it on today’s run. As I said, I like routine, and yesterday and today were routine runs around Johns Hopkins and back to Charles Village via this spot.

I’ve passed it a zillion times on foot, bike, and car. That plinth there used to host the Stonewall Jackson/Robert E. Lee statue. I wasn’t surprised they had such a thing here–Baltimore’s the south, and celebrating Confederate soldiers is a thing white people do in the south–and the north. It’s white supremacy, and the north and south are true partners in it. Celebrating all the (white) soldiers in the Civil War was–and is–a way to knit the nation back together through whiteness, and to write Black people out of citizenship. White supremacy is a core American value, and these statues were (and are, where they haven’t been taken down) part of cementing and celebrating that.

Back when Lee and Jackson were still on top of that plinth I thought about this almost every time I passed it, until I didn’t. It faded into the background, like so much of our history, popping out when activists demanded it or I shifted my attention. But even when the background’s not in focus, it’s still the background, the thing against which the rest of life is lived. This statue had to go, and I’m glad it’s gone.

I’m glad the Columbus statue down near Harbor East is gone too, torn down this weekend by I’m-not-sure-who. He faded into the background for a lot of us; I struggled to explain where that statue was to my ladyfriend who doesn’t spend as much time biking by it as I do. But the celebration of a Columbus is the celebration of colonial genocide, and that background needed to go. Settler colonialism is still in every inch of our soil, but now we can talk about that without this statue in the way.

But we have to talk about it. Everyone I know who wants these things gone knows that symbolic change is only part of things. Material change is in many ways a longer and harder road. Wealth and land reparations are harder sells than getting rid of these statues–and that is plenty hard. You can rename every street and knock down every confederate statue, but it’s nowhere near enough. The danger is thinking we’re done with talking or, more importantly, actually doing the wealth transfer necessary to distribute life chances equally.

In the meantime the plinth is empty, but it is also a site for people to tell new stories, whether by putting a different statue up there, writing messages on it, or, as my neighbor J. saw last week, standing atop it in a Union soldier’s uniform, waving a Confederate flag. I’m not sure what that was about, but wow, I way prefer it to the permanent Confederate monument I used to have to ride by at least twice a week.

And then my routine runs brought be around the park, back to the neighborhood streets, and home for stretching and showers. It’s so hot out there, and running feels pretty miserable most of the time, but I’m still always glad I got out there, no matter what. It’s good to see what’s happening, and important to keep seeing what too easily fades away.

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