Posts

07/07/2020

The Kościuszko Statue in Washington, D.C., and why we should leave graffiti on it

During the Black Lives Matter protests, the statue of the Polish-American hero from the turn of the 18th and 19th centuries, Tadeusz Kościuszko (1746-1817) in Washington, D.C., standing near the White House, was sprayed with BLM slogans. In the right-wing media, not only in Poland, a wave of hate towards the protesters after the death of George Floyd poured out. The slogans were aimed at Donald Trump and included other anti-racist postulates of the movement. The Polish right-wing immediately picked up the tone of the American president. However, it soon turned out to be a misguided choice, as Kościuszko's heart was instead beating on the left. And a surprising idea quickly emerged: to leave graffiti on the monument as a sign of history and shared memory.

When history happens before our eyes, we are usually speechless in commenting on it. Twitter culture requires conciseness, the world of live media coverage has radically accelerated, the only history seems to be lagging behind. The lockdown has slowed everything down. And it seemed that it would stay that way. Already some countries were introducing more and more far-reaching restrictions, and a new form of government—the COVID-19 authoritarianism (as in the case of Hungary, or the Law and Justice politicians ruling in Poland, dreaming of Budapest on the Vistula Riverbank). But the murder of George Floyd by a policeman turned everything upside down. Also thinking about memory. It turned thinking about memory towards the future. And perhaps in new ways of thinking about sites of memory.

Kościuszko's defence against vandals, as the protesters in the Polish media, were called, concerned the glorious past. Indeed, here it was a full agreement that it was difficult for the protesters to choose a worse object to express their political will than Kościuszko. At the same time, however, it may be challenging to find a better purpose for such a political demonstration in the United States. If we had the opportunity to talk to our predecessors, it might turn out that Kościuszko is satisfied—with these inscriptions on his own monument.

Kościuszko is rightly considered a hero of the United States and Poland. In the United States, he took part in the American War of Independence. He contributed to the victory in the battle of Saratoga. He is, among others, the builder of the West Point fortification. In the American army, he reached the rank of Brigadier General. In recognition of his merits, he received 500 acres of land from the Congress and salary. The money was later used to buy out and educate the slaves, and Thomas Jefferson entrusted the execution of his will. Its overtones leave no illusions about its abolitionist character. But its implementation leaves much to be desired.

After his return to Poland, Kościuszko took part and commanded the fights for independence in Poland, which was losing it as a result of the partitions. He became famous for the fact that, contrary to the nobility's standards, he partially abolished the serfdom of peasants in his own estate. It was a breakthrough in the thinking of the nobility at that time. They did not like such deviations from accepted laws and customs. When in 1794, as part of the uprising, the so-called Kosciuszko Uprising, he based his troops on peasants (the so-called "kosynierzy"—from scythes placed on a storm serving as weapons for the fighters) and on riflemen's forces modelled on the American Rangers. And although the uprising lost, the invaders finally took Poland, Kosciuszko's modern thinking is present in modernist Polish thought. Thus, it is difficult to find here a biography of a hero for the Polish or American right.

In this short biography, it is not difficult to find such elements that indicate that in BLM, he would not be on the side of the state administration, but on the bottom of the protesters. It would not be so surprising, considering how the statue presents itself, if we think other stories of the Polish struggle "for our freedom and yours". One of them was the support of the Haitian Revolution (then Saint-Domingue) at the turn of the 18th and 19th century, which led to the creation of the first state that was free of both slaveries and ruled by non-white citizens. Moreover, the Haitian Constitution stated that the country would be independent and could not be inhabited by white people. There was one exception—for Poles. To suppress the revolution, Napoleon sent armed troops to the island, including the Polish Legions—emigration armed forces. However, he did not take into account the fact that while French soldiers would fight in the name of France, Polish soldiers would go to the side of rebellious slaves. Their descendants still live in Haiti—among others in the village of Cazale. Thus, in Polish thought (and action) at the turn of the 18th and 19th century, more situations have nothing to do with today's attempts to seize the past by the conservative right.

This history helps to understand why the dispute over Kościuszko's memory and the graffiti on his statue is essential. It shows that the left has and can have its traditions, just like the liberals. We are not condemned to the dictum of right-wing traditionalism. We are not doomed to think about the past from one perspective only.

An idea has emerged in Poland (and an internet petition signed by doctors of the sociology and political philosophy, Łukasz Mol and Michał Pospiszyl) to keep these inscriptions on the monument. I fully agree with that. Of course, this is a subversive vision of what memorials or monuments are supposed to be. However, if they are to be something more than just historical monuments restored from time to time, under which official delegations sometimes place flower wreaths, then there is no better opportunity to change our thinking about memory. It will stop being hostage to the past. It will become a message for the future.

This exciting idea to leave these graffiti on the monument—a historical sign of these BLM events and histories. I would say that it is a palimpsest of memory—a deep entanglement of different layers of history (Kosciuszko, slaves, serfs, Haiti, where Kosciuszko never was, George Floyd, BLM), which makes sense here. Or a multi-directional memory in the spirit of Michael Rothberg, connecting worlds and times. Despite hypocritical politicians.

(June 2020)