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The empty honorings of “Forward”

We can’t have a real conversation about statues without considering what happens on the land they occupy.

Illustration by Rachal Duggan.

I lived across the hall from two Chinese students my sophomore year at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. We shared a communal bathroom, caught each other in between classes or around dinnertime, and, I think, my roommate and I and the two women were naturally drawn to each other because we were the only Asian people in an almost entirely white hall. Our hall reflected campus demographics as a whole—nearly 70 percent of students at UW-Madison are white.

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Our house fellow made a monthly habit of hanging decorations on all of our doors with our names on them—“Mia” written on cut outs of Bucky Badger, cartoon characters, or flowers. Paper name tags accumulated on our door, a collage of the months we had lived there, until eventually both my roommates and I noticed our door was looking sparser. Every few weeks, someone was ripping our decorations down. The room next door, occupied by two white women, remained untouched. One of us would come into our shared room and remark that yet another one was gone. We were annoyed, but said nothing.

Looking back, it’s impossible to not think of the missing name cards as a harbinger of what was to come. A few months into the school year, someone left a message on a giant whiteboard at the entrance of our hall for the Chinese students across from us: “The girls in room #### need to learn how to speak English and go back to China.” Our house fellow, an obviously ill-equipped white woman just a few years older than the students she oversaw, summoned us all to a mandatory hall meeting. Platitudes were shared, nobody ever owned up to doing it, and for the remainder of the year the racist comment was replaced by a piece of paper reading, “Hate happened here,” part of a clumsy official university program in response to reports of racism. It contained no promises, no apology, and my roommate recalls that these signs hung around dorms were often defaced. And like the name cards on our door, eventually that paper was torn down, too.

Over the past week, some Madison residents and many individuals who have never been people of color in the city have lectured anti-police-brutality protesters for removing two statues that sat at the Wisconsin state capitol. One is a replica of the “Forward” statue, which depicts a woman with an outstretched arm, echoing the Wisconsin state motto “Forward.” Jean Pond Miner, the sculpture, felt her home state of Wisconsin embodied the progress and devotion symbolized in the bronze Lady Forward. Also toppled was a statue depicting Hans Christian Heg, an abolitionist who died in combat during the Civil War. Both statues were later recovered. 

Usually when there was a protest at the Capitol, it was likely that “Forward” was left with the day’s remnants: A “Wisconsin For Sale, call Scott Walker” sign was hung around her neck by protesters opposing Walker’s bill to kill collective bargaining for state workers in 2011; a pink knit pussy hat was left on her head following the 2016 Women’s March. And earlier in June, amid protests over police killings of Black people, “Forward” was doused in red paint, dripping down her face to the ground she stood on. On June 23, after Madison police arrested a Black activist who was using a bullhorn and walking with a baseball bat, and following several incidents in which people drove their cars into crowds of protestors blocking streets, protesters tied chains to Lady Forward and pulled her down, leaving the statue in the street.

I’ve watched people I know and people I don’t debate whether it was right to remove the statues. In recent weeks, the toppling of statues—especially those honoring Confederate history—has become a divisive topic, not just over whether it should happen at all, but also over which statues and subjects should be spared. 

Good statue, bad statue. I’m not interested in participating in that debate, but the swift and fairly unified outrage over the removal of Forward forced me to consider my own attachment to any statue, good or bad, a fraught exercise in labeling and value. I don’t know that there is a legitimate way to assess these artifacts without considering the places they exist and the people they are presumed to represent.

In many parts of rural Wisconsin, the belief is that if you move to Madison, you’ll become a liberal or a radical leftist. The city votes blue, has naked bike rides and frequent demonstrations at the farmer’s market on the Capitol Square, but the most powerful reinforcement of this belief is that Madison itself is obsessed with the distinction. Nobody believes in the city as a liberal bubble as much as the people who live there, and savor it. The Forward ideal then, to them, isn’t so much a call for urgency and action, but a concept to point to as they work to pull the rest of the state with them. Most of white Madison is quite fine remaining where they are. 

But the image of Madison—real and imagined—as a safe haven dedicated to progress ignores the disparities right in its backyard. The Forward statue sat outside of the capitol for years while inside, legislators passed the very kind of laws protesters are now pushing against: bills to build more prisons, effectively eliminate parole through truth-in-sentencing, and, for the first time in 2012, under the Scott Walker administration, spend more on corrections than on the entire University of Wisconsin system, a constellation of 26 public college campuses across the state. Meanwhile, a 2013 study showed that Wisconsin incarcerates Black men at a higher rate than any other state in the country. One in eight Black men of working age in Wisconsin is behind bars.

Students at UW-Madison, with the blessing of the institution itself, contribute to inequity in the city. Every undergraduate student is forced to take exactly one semester of a class that meets an “ethnic studies” requirement, and even that bare minimum is the source of complaints and ridicule among the student body. For many students white and not, “Madison” extends only as far as university buildings and house parties, and there is no widespread institutional requirement to get students off campus and in community with the rest of the city, thus keeping power and resources highly concentrated. UW-Madison advertising materials are littered with idyllic pictures of the beautiful Lake Mendota, so quintessential and close to campus life that students can (and do) have a beer between classes and dip their feet in the water. As a journalism and political science major, I encountered only one class where off-campus community work was required, in my journalism for racial justice course. When I enrolled in the course in 2016, it was the first time it was being offered. A worker at the after school program I volunteered at told me many kids of color don’t even know there are lakes in their city.

Madison’s liberal security blankets only those for whom “race” is a theoretical and intellectual exercise. Most all of the people of color I know from college experienced racism in some way while in Madison: From strangers, from fellow students, or from institutional inaction or response. Popular college bars blocked music by Black artists from digital jukeboxes because they said it attracted the wrong crowd, and enforced dress codes that explicitly banned plain white T-shirts, grills, and baggy clothes. Lady Forward stood undisturbed a few blocks away.

As I think back to the institutional response to racism, when there is any at all, it’s hard to find much resolve in half-hearted, hollow actions—erecting a statue or taping up a 9×11-inch sign. And I understand the insult to injury felt by people who don’t find hope in well-meaning symbolism, because these relics often don’t reflect the lived reality of those at the receiving end of hate. The statues and posters don’t truly hold everyone else to a higher moral calling—real promises can’t be made in bronze and paper. And though I like Lady Forward simply because I’m used to seeing it where it stood, I also find it hard to mourn her forced removal when there is so much life-or-death work to be done by all of us.

I still don’t know who wrote the racist message on my hall’s whiteboard, or if the clockwork removal of the decorations on my door was because my roommate and I weren’t white. I don’t know who ripped down the “Hate happened here” note. But on the last act, I can at least hope: That it was one of the women across the hall, who saw the official response to her pain as taunting and empty, cynical and useless as I did, and understood that was the extent to which the university would fight for her. I hope that one day, she had finally seen it enough to know nothing would change because of it, and, realizing this, did what was in her power. I hope she tore that paper down herself, so we could all stop pretending.

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