A day at the racist museum
How should we deal with the irredeemably racist monuments to white supremacy that crowd our cities?
On a sweltering August day, when we received daily warnings from our city authorities about the dangerous heat coming our way, I took my younger children to the American Museum of Natural History in New York. My children wanted to see a spectacular show in its planetarium called “Dark Universe” and I was looking for a cool place to entertain their fancies.
Upon arriving, I remembered that to get in, we will have to navigate around a rather racist statue of Theodore Roosevelt, showing the late president on horseback flanked by an African-American and a Native American standing below on each side.
At least since the late 1990s this monument has been the subject of critical reflection in the US, marking the patent racial hierarchy it stages and celebrates. Following the removal of the Robert E Lee statue in New Orleans in 2017, all such monuments to the long history of racism in the US have become subjects of renewed examination.
As we stood in line to get ticket for the planetarium show, paramount on my mind was not just the racist evidence at the entrance of the museum but the vast universe awaiting us at one of its interior halls.
We were there to see a show celebrating “the pivotal discoveries that have led us to greater knowledge of the structure and history of the universe and our place in it – and to new frontiers for exploration.” Paradoxically, and making a mockery of that racist statue at the entrance, the narrator of the show is Neil deGrasse Tyson – a distinguished African-American astrophysicist.
I marvelled at the stars and listened to Tyson telling us of the expanding universe – and I remembered the Persian poet Sa’di. There is a story in his book Golestan (1258) in which an astronomer comes home and finds a young man in the compromising company of his wife. He gets angry and start screaming and hitting the man. A crowd gathers and people find out the reason for the commotion. Someone in the crowd turns to the astronomer and says: “What in the world could you know about the secrets of the heavens when you have no clue what is happening in your own home?”
The US today finds itself in a similar situation. It invests massively in space exploration and even plans for a space army, as Donald Trump has announced, and yet the terrors of the most recalcitrant barbarism on this Earth is still unfolding on its territory and along its borders. There is a vast and perhaps irreconcilable discrepancy between the expansive horizons of the unknown we wish to explore, and the shrinking history of the troubling truth we wish to forget.