Amnesia and injustice go hand in hand. It is much easier to ignore history (or avenge it), than to look it squarely in the face.
The Fourth of July is known as Independence Day in the United States, a celebration marking the fight against the colonial powers of England. This year, in the wake of our global reckoning with racism, Independence Day should also be a day for reflecting on all people of African descent who fought for their right to be free from slavery and oppression, yet who have been deliberately erased from history.
Statues are incarnations of whom we choose to honor in our public spaces. Spurred by the global Black Lives Matter movement, statues in the US that were raised to recast the South’s defeat in the US Civil War have now been defaced and removed to protest the glorification of that racist past.
Instead of considering all of the many statues that rightfully deserve to be taken down or put into museums to study history’s lessons, I’d like to celebrate this Fourth of July by honoring a statue with the power to lift us up. In Copenhagen, Denmark, is an old harbor warehouse that was once filled with sugar and rum, for which Black lives were traded. In front of it now stands “I Am Queen Mary.”
More than 20 feet tall, a regal Black woman sits on a throne, holding a knife for cutting sugar cane in one hand and a torch in the other. She was inspired by Mary Thomas, who led a slave revolt in the Danish West Indies. It is the only statue I know that commemorates a Black rebel female slave. Too many other countries have tried to hide their shameful role in the transatlantic slave trade, instead raising statues of those who profited from it, like the one recently thrown into Bristol’s harbor. I imagine the Rebel Queen’s words today: “The vote is a powerful weapon we never had. Use it well!”
This homage to a Black woman’s courage was created by two Black female artists, LaVaughn Belle from the Virgin Islands and Jeannette Ehlers, a Dane with Caribbean roots. When I learned more about I Am Queen Mary, I shared her origin story with my 81-year-old mother. She and my father, who passed away in 2015, were born and raised in Haiti, the only nation in the world borne of slave rebellion. My mother made a vow that one day we would see Queen Mary together. Last December, she traveled for 20 hours from the US to meet me and my husband in Copenhagen.
As a chilly winter rain lashed our faces, the three of us made our way gingerly across slippery cobblestones. We were making a pilgrimage to a monument against silence and erasure from history. We were honoring the power of art to shine a light on those hidden in the margins of history. We gazed up at the Rebel Queen as if she held the past, present, and future in her hands.