Once upon a time, the president of the United States was a New York City elite who championed white nationalism. Need a hint? His name starts with “T.” And he died 100 years ago. If you guessed Theodore Roosevelt, bully for you.
To be sure, the similarities stop there. Roosevelt’s legacy includes national parks, social reforms that benefited the working class and women, and strictures on big business. He believed in “the right of the people to rule.” But he also remained a proponent of assimilationist policies for American Indians and believed African Americans to be inferior to whites. He wholeheartedly endorsed the “race science” of his friend Madison Grant, an influential eugenicist, who advocated selective breeding for the American populace.
Given the fever pitch of American politics, celebrating the legacy of this complicated man must be treated with extreme care.
Recently I opened my mailbox to find a brochure for the 14th annual Theodore Roosevelt Symposium at Dickinson State University. The cover is a play on the ubiquitous Shepard Fairey “Hope” and “Change” Obama campaign posters, with a TR portrait in high-contrast blue and red above the conference theme, “An American Legacy.” Inside, the brochure highlights moderator and local humanities scholar Clay Jenkinson, as well as three presumably white, male guest presenters.
Gentle readers, let’s think critically here, like the smart, informed, engaged citizens we are.
Honestly, I was taken aback by the audacity of the Obama poster allusion. Perhaps the organizers view this as a bold move in a pro-Trump state, referencing a Democratic president who, like Theodore Roosevelt, received the Nobel Peace Prize. However, in light of the recent media conversation around white nationalism, mass shootings, domestic terrorism, and sending people back to where they didn’t actually come from, this could be perceived as an insensitive and offensive reference. The Smithsonian’s bio of TR, under the subhead “legacy,” flatly states he was “a racist.” We are all morally complex creatures of our own time and place, but pairing an unabashed eugenicist with our country’s first Black president, who campaigned on embracing a diverse America, does not feel right.
Once again, North Dakota, we can do better.
I understand why people here love Teddy Roosevelt. It makes sense to capitalize on TR’s formative experience at the Elkhorn Ranch and show off our beautiful Badlands. But at what cost do we continue to glorify this romantic cowboy image that in essence perpetuates white nostalgia?
Last year Gov. Doug Burgum championed the proposed Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library in Medora as “North Dakota’s Mount Rushmore.” Burgum's analogy is correct, but for all the wrong reasons. Mount Rushmore has long been controversial — built on sacred Lakota land in the Black Hills, it exalts four complicated American presidents: two owned slaves, one freed the slaves, and the last one, along with everything noted above, has that horrible quote about dead Indians. We should be careful in how we market, and celebrate, this complex legacy of our democracy, and not add insult to injury like South Dakota did a century ago.
I’m sure the scholars at the symposium are well aware of these controversies and will discuss TR’s legacy with gravity and grace. But North Dakota has a rich, diverse history of people who lived here their entire lives and are truly legendary in their own right. Ignoring them to laud an East Coast politician who spent a couple years in Dakota Territory seems misguided at best. We have the power to create an equally attractive legacy that is more equitable, beautiful, and just for all of us.