San Francisco Monument

Email | Share | Print

Making History Matter

Monument Dedication Speech by Peter Glazer, March 30, 2008

Dave SmithWe live in difficult and dangerous times. Most of us here today live in a country, this country, where one major party vies unapologetically for its radical right-wing constituency, panders to its reactionary whims, yet the other major party must avoid even naming, or having clear public affiliation with the Left, as though the people in this room, and so many like us, don’t exist. We live in a time when the Right in America has attempted to appropriate patriotism, as though dissent was ever unpatriotic, as though these men and women before me weren’t defending rights and values at the core of our democracy. We live in a time where our national kin--4000 and climbing--have died in a war begun on wholly false pretenses and pursued with the blindness and arrogance only the blithering Bush and his vicious cronies could come up with, a war beyond reason. We live in a day and in a land where the gap between the rich and the poor is ever-widening, where almost one quarter of the world's prisoners sit in our jails. And we move towards an election where a presumptive candidate boasts of a hundred year war in Iraq. Clearly, there is great work to be done.

Why, on this momentous day, do I speak of such trouble? Because people need your history, and your history is in danger. We all know there was a time when the Left was a visible and undeniable voice in American political discourse; when to imagine a better, saner, more just and peaceful world of people more equal and more free could not be, would not be put down, and to hold those beliefs, and act on them, was full of hope and possibility; and a time when the gross injustice of a military coup against a democratic government, and Hank Rubin.  Photo by James Fernandez.fascist collusion and collaboration in that coup, was met with outrage across this country, and many thousands of men and women stood up against Franco’s revolt, on the home front, and also, of course, in Spain. During the Spanish Civil War, an American volunteer asked a Spanish anarchist if he hated the International Brigades. “How can we hate you,” he answered, “who come from a rich country to a poor country to give your lives for an idea!”  Actions like that make history, and as millions of people walk the Embarcadero today and in decades to come, this monument will make its own kind of history, because it will stop them in their tracks and tap them on the shoulder and say . . . “Here is something important, here is something beautiful and tragic and essential, something you must know, that once upon a time in the 1930s, men and women came from a rich country to a poor country and gave of their lives for an idea.”

Virginia Malbin.  Photo by James Fernandez.For years, the Veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, and the Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives have been working to protect this impossibly important history, but there’s always been the risk of preaching to the choir, to the converted. Likely none of you need to be told the story of Spain. And yes, this monument serves you, gives us all a place of memory, honors the American volunteers, is humbled by the men and women still with us here today, their families and loved ones, and those who lie so honorably in the Spanish earth. But I have to tell you something – this monument is not for us. It is more for the people outside these doors; it is for decades of passersby, who will come upon history on the Embarcadero. We don’t need this monument as they do. They need this past, and by looking back, the may march forward with confidence and strength.

This monument was not created without controversy. There are people who are not here today because they Abe Osheroff. Photo by James Fernandez.object to this monument, and people present who wish deeply in their hearts that it was different. Those feelings are real and must be respected. Every single person in this room has this war in them, somewhere, and how they see it and what it means to them is theirs and only theirs. But as soon as a monument is designed and built trying to capture history and honor memory, it fails. It fails because memory is not made of words and photographs and onyx and steel; memory lives in us, and is unbounded in its richness and depth. Monuments have edges, hard edges, and those edges hold some things in and close others out. Monuments are finite, and our individual and collective memories are infinitely complex and multi-faceted. But we live in dangerous times. As Abe Osheroff said at today’s unveiling, the stuff the veterans are made of will never go away. But your history--of progressive action, of idealism and possibility--is at risk, could be lost forever. You are all doing everything you can to prevent that. This monument, though, can do something you can’t--flawed, edged, and finite as it is, it can reach more people than you can speak to in a lifetime, catch them with an image; reach them with words, tease them with an idea, call them into history, offer them hope and a new way to think about the world. Monuments are flawed attempts to present and evoke a history but we have no choice, because we dare not let this moment go.

Monument and Olive Trees.  Photo by James Fernandez.This wall of ideas is not only a wall but also a door, a way in. And the fact of its presence in public space, its scale, its substance, the concentrated effort manifest in its structure makes an indelible mark in the landscape, and in the public imagination. This history matters, it argues; it deserves your attention; it is real

As a commemorative body, we must not preach only to the choir. “An active transmission of memory requires. . .a broadening of the ‘we’,” it has been written. The “we” who must “remember” has to be broadened. More people must feel that urgency, that desire, that commitment, those ideas that have defined this community for over 70 years. We have “to come to grips with the Necessity that [the] past represents.”

The poet Langston Hughes, who went to Spain reporting on the war for a black newspaper, wrote a poem for Eddie Rolfe, a volunteer and a poet himself. Langston Hughes’s words mark the onyx on the Embarcadero. “Poet on the battlefront of the world,” he wrote to Rolfe, “what does your heart hear? What poems unfurl bright banners made of words with red wings to fly over the trenches, and over frontiers, and over all barriers of time, through the years, to sing this story of Spain on the ramparts of the world?”

I think I can speak for the makers of this monument--its devoted, brilliant designers Anne Chamberlain and Walter Hood, its generous funders, the tireless local monument committee, and ALBA--and say that that is our fervent hope: that over frontiers, and over all barriers of time, that it will sing this story of Spain on the ramparts of the world.

Thank you.

Peter Glazer is the author of Radical Nostalgia and co-editor with Peter N. Carroll of War is Beautiful: Journal of an American Ambulance Driver in Spain 1937-1938 (New Press, 2008).