THE ISSUE: The Unsung Founders Memorial in McCorkle Place recognizes the enslaved people who built UNC. Over the years, people eating or changing their child’s diaper on the statue have attracted controversy. These viewpoints debate what the memorial’s purpose should be. You can read the other viewpoint here.
Let’s keep the Unsung Founders Memorial just the way it is. It feels weird calling the memorial by its formal name. That’s because, until recently, I knew the tabular sculpture as “The Table of Oppression.” Some friends and I began calling it that our first year at UNC. I can’t remember where the phrase came from exactly, but I do know this: My informal title for a sculpture honoring many who endured racism and slavery during UNC’s more than 200-year history was a joke. It was a pretty puny revolt against political correctness and pretty callous given my experiences of privilege.
“Table of Oppression” was also a nickname. Like many nicknames, it was an expression of affection. This affection developed as the sculpture served variously as a slippery stage for dancing during a snowy evening, a solitary spot for thinking sad thoughts after morning lectures and a resting point after drunken nights. It functioned as a place to pine, frolic and laugh, and I grew to love it for that.
“Serve.” “Function.” Those words grate given the context, don’t they? Isn’t it ironic and troubling that students who lack experience with racial injustice should show little respect to a memorial commemorating those who bore — in many cases — the heavy burden of it? I think so. But marking it with a sign requesting contemplative silence will reduce much of its persuasive efficacy.
People with personal attachments to the sculpture may be more likely to weigh arguments and facts about the historical and contemporary realities of racism. I think that’s the magic of the Unsung Founders Memorial: It elicits love as well as thought in a powerful spell of persuasion. What does Silent Sam have on that?
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