What happens to cultures that stand like statues?

I grew up in South Philly. Here’s what heritage means to me.

4 minute read
A crew from Mural Arts Philadelphia paints over the Frank Rizzo mural on Ninth Street in June 2020. (Photo by Steve Weinik.)
A crew from Mural Arts Philadelphia paints over the Frank Rizzo mural on Ninth Street in June 2020. (Photo by Steve Weinik.)

I watched the crowd on television dancing revolutions on the flat, curved parkway from the Philadelphia Museum of Art down to Eakins Oval: people of all races and all ages in prismatic COVID masks, each distanced a few feet apart but locked in step, shouting for and demanding an end to police brutality and systemic racism.

Meanwhile, another potent image came my way via Instagram. It was the first image's moral and political opposite. It was a picture of a young man, dragging a baseball bat like a club, unironically decked out in a Dave Chappelle shirt, “protecting” the Philadelphia Police Department’s 26th District headquarters from people protesting police brutality and racism. Whoever he was, he wasn’t alone. Whether it’s the Frank Rizzo-ites, the Marconi Militia, or the Target Volunteers, there seems to be no shortage of city-dwelling blue-collar conservatives willing to out themselves as racists. When pressed, they report a motive to protect their culture. Which leads me to ask: well, they know it’s not going to work, right? And is there a better way?

Name that road

I grew up in South Philly. I “stayed on a corner” and have known guys like this my entire life. While they’re not the majority, they talk so loud it often doesn’t feel that way. These are the kind of guys who do steroids but don’t work out, and use the n-word but “mean no disrespect.” They are caricatures. They play up to the “South Philly” stereotype, even going so far as to practice their accent in the mirror. Their parents’ identity was a result of environment; their identity is a lifestyle choice.

As South Philadelphians, we all lose. These guys’ ability to perform and reproduce yesteryear’s bigotry and hoagie-sized worldview works only to mute the polyphonic texture of South Philadelphia. These guys are not champions of their culture. They are threats. If they were truly dedicated to honoring Christopher Columbus, would these same guys insist you call it “Delaware Avenue” instead of “Columbus Boulevard”?

The southern portion of the original avenue was renamed in 1992, over the protests of local Indigenous people, and you can tell how long someone’s been in the neighborhood by what they call that thoroughfare—like my grandmother and me, who refuse the new names. Columbus Boulevard? Hell no. It’s Delaware Avenue (originally named in the 1830s for the river that got its name from Thomas West, the third Baron De La Warr—and “Delaware” is also what English colonizers called the Leni Lenape people who were here first).

And Kelly Drive? No, it’s East River Drive. Though especially since my grandmother had no problem switching from West River Drive to Martin Luther King Drive, I’m not sure what we’re defending with our aversion to “Kelly Drive.” (My grandmother grew up in Fairmount, so maybe there was a kerfuffle at a C.Y.O dance with Grace’s younger sister.)

Philadelphia's forward-looking contingent turns out to be a pretty big crowd. (Photo by Dillon Minacci.)
Philadelphia's forward-looking contingent turns out to be a pretty big crowd. (Photo by Dillon Minacci.)

Who are you convincing?

If the road names are any indication, there may be little rhyme or reason to choosing the cultural artifacts we protect. But how is standing in front of the bronze slur-filled jowls of the Frank Rizzo statue, or the figure of Cristóbal Colón (who, some evidence suggests, was a Spanish Marrano Jew) supposed to protect Italian culture? These two aren’t exactly Italian luminaries. (Maybe we could try Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, though he would’ve probably preferred any statue of him to be torn down.) If you so desperately need to prove to the world that your culture is worth a damn, whether it’s the police or South Philly pride or otherwise, do you think fighting against the removal of racist symbols, or pointing to all the reasons why you matter, when the world is rightly focused on Black lives, is going to convince anyone?

The way to protect culture, heritage, or identity is to examine its meaning and to display an ability to withstand critique—to evolve. Strong cultures or people are their own biggest critics. Do Germany or Italy allow any statues of Hitler, Goering, Eichmann, or Mussolini?

The only move

Cultures that survive are in flux; cultures that die stand still, like statues. At this point, the only move is transformation. The United States is experiencing a moment in which protecting culture, institutions, and reputation requires an understanding, unpacking, and elimination of racism. The original sin of the Americas began with Columbus (and others like him), carried on through the enslavement of African people, and renews itself in people like Rizzo and Trump. Don’t you think there is a kind of delusion involved in revering both the Confederate flag and the American flag, and all that each stands for? Or do these flags have entirely too much in common? There is no way around facing these questions, and seeking answers to them. Any move to avoid them is an example of their necessity.

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