…and the walls come a tumblin’ down.

Statue of Father Junipero Serra along Highway 280 in California

On Friday, June 19th, a statue of Father Junipero Serra was pulled down by a group of protesters – which renders a lot of the statements in this post (originally dated earlier in the same week) obsolete. Still, I firmly believe that history must be preserved at the same time that we as Americans cease glorifying some of the horrors perpetuated throughout our existence. Understanding that, please read on if you like…

I was horrified when the Catholic church beatified Father Junipero Serra, not very long ago. I’m a native Californian and I know that man’s history. He may not have been personally responsible for the diseases that wiped out more than half the indigenous people of my state upon his arrival in 1769, but those deadly germs came here with the soldiers who protected him and his ecclesiastic posse. He and the believers of his church directly enslaved (or tried to enslave with wanton brutality) what remained of our native population, resulting in still more death and the ultimate crushing of a peaceful culture. He brought the Catholic doctrine to the “unwashed” – which, at one time, was thought to be a noble thing, no matter the cost. However, what “miracles” could he have performed to justify the destruction? What cost sainthood? How could the Catholic church, in the modern era, be so blind to the horrors that man brought to the New World? Sure, he left us gorgeous missions, but at what price?

Still, I don’t see the statues of Father Serra being ripped from their moorings. Few, if any, voices are advocating the destruction of the 21 religious outposts he and his people built up and down our coast. I don’t see an effort to change the streets and avenues that bear his name. I haven’t heard of a campaign to wipe Father Sierra’s memory from our history books. Maybe in time, but not now. Instead, he’s made a saint. What?

How are Americans choosing their targets in the battle against racism and brutality?

Today, in the streets of the United States, statues and edifices are coming down in protest, in anger, in frustration. Confederate leaders, Christopher Columbus, John Sutter (to get back to California) – their stock has fallen, now their monuments are falling too.

Is it right? And where does it end? Do we tear down the Washington monument in D.C. because our first president was a slave owner? Do we forget all the good things one person has accomplished simply because they didn’t believe in things we now hold dear? Will removing statues wipe out racism? Will deleting the “N word” from Huckleberry Finn make the world a better place? Are we trying to change history?

I don’t think so. As the author of historical fiction, I’m firmly against “white washing” history. Humans learn and grow from past mistakes. Jews don’t want the Holocaust forgotten, but they don’t want it lionized. Germany doesn’t erect statues of Adolf Hitler, why should the U.S. tolerate monuments to Father Sierra or Robert E. Lee? Monuments are a form of honor – we should not honor those who have brought more destruction than good. Let’s put those names, and their likenesses, in the history books and museums, instead of public places.

And the Washington monument? The California missions? Can’t put those in the basement of Congress or raze them to the ground, can we? So, let’s make them places of learning, sites where the good is acknowledged along with the bad so that each visitor can take away a balanced chronicle, the nation’s wounds given fresh air and a chance to heal as we make our own history.

About Lori Hart Beninger

Lori Hart Beninger is a native California writer with three critically acclaimed historical novels (Embracing the Elephant, A Veil of Fog and Flames, and A Peculiar Peace) that follow two 19th century young adults as they struggle with survival and acceptance in the pivotal era of the California Gold Rush up to the American Civil War. Please visit www.ontrackpublishing.com for synopses, availability, reviews, and more.
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