Let’s talk about Confederate monuments.
They’re going down. Some of them are, anyway. But they’re not going down without a fight from the heritage-not-hate devotees of the tributes to the fight to preserve slavery and white supremacy.
New Orleans has taken down statues honoring generals Robert E. Lee and P.G.T. Beauregard, Confederate President Jefferson Davis, and assorted vigilantes who worked to overthrow the city’s Reconstruction government. Charlottesville, Virginia, has voted to rename Lee Park and remove the statue of Robert E. Lee. (That vote was met with a nighttime rally of torch-wielding protesters.)
But just as quickly as the statues are falling, city and state governments are proposing protections for such monuments as a matter of “heritage.” Alabama’s Memorial Preservation Act, signed into law on Friday, “is intended to preserve all of Alabama’s history — the good and the bad — so our children and grandchildren can learn from the past to create a better future,” says bill sponsor Sen. Gerald Allen. Louisiana lawmakers are discussing the Louisiana Military Memorial Conservation Act. And Mississippi state Rep. Karl Oliver called for the lynching of New Orleans leaders responsible for the removal of the statues. (He later said he’s sorry.)
So what’s really behind this desperate protectiveness of Civil War participation trophies? What does it all mean? Why does a 60-foot-tall equestrian statue of a Confederate general have no place on taxpayer-owned property?
Let’s talk about participation trophies.
I have to start out with a message to my fellow denizens of the Deep South, specifically the ones still flying their rebel flags: Y’all lost. Y’all lost 150 year ago. The South is not going to rise again. This is not your year. Your equestrian statue of Robert E. Lee is honoring a man who lost, and lost big, but gave it the ol’ college try.
I can think of few things snowflakier than erecting 60-foot statues in honor of the biggest collective loser in U.S. history, and then getting pissed off when people object to having that embodiment of white supremacy featured prominently on their tree-lined avenues and State House lawn. Go ahead and put up a statue to your great-great-great-great grandpappy on your own private land in honor of his valiant participation in the War of Northern Aggression, but don’t expect your local government to build a monument for him.
Let’s talk about monuments and memorials.
A common argument against the removal of rebel flags and shrines and statues of Confederate generals from places of public prominence is that it’s an attempt to erase history. If we remove the Confederate flag from its place of honor above the South Carolina state house, we’ll forget that the Civil War ever happened and, I don’t know, try to reestablish the institution of slavery, or something. Those Confederate monuments, apparently, are an essential reminder of the evils perpetrated by the generals literally placed upon a 70-foot pedestal (and apparently can’t be replaced by some other monument that doesn’t glorify said generals).
Recently, a New York Times opinion piece argued that the statues of Confederal generals on Monument Avenue in Richmond, Virginia, may not be “monuments” but, in fact, “memorials.” While author Gary Shapiro acknowledges that “records show that they were meant to legitimize and dignify the white supremacist regime that had taken hold in Virginia,” he also questions whether they merely suffer from a “deferred maintenance of history.”
The debate around these monuments — Should they be destroyed, maintained or removed elsewhere? — has been heated and, I believe, misguided. We should be asking other questions instead: Are these statues really “monuments” by our present standards? Or are they rather “memorials”? Are we misled by the avenue’s name? Do we need to rename the avenue itself as we attempt to remedy our deferred maintenance of history?
Here’s his distinction between monuments and memorials:
Why do we name some monuments (like the Washington Monument) and others memorials? [Philosopher Arthur] Danto’s answer is a model of clarity: “We erect monuments so that we shall always remember, and build memorials so that we shall never forget.” Monuments, Danto wrote, “commemorate the memorable and embody the myths of beginnings. Memorials ritualize remembrance and mark the reality of ends.”
Super helpful. Guided by that logic, Shapiro contrasts monuments to George Washington — the father of our country, “whatever his flaws” — to the Vietnam War Memorial, which ensures that the people and events of that war will never be forgotten. So all we really have to do is declare that the statues on Monument Avenue are now memorials to the victims of slavery and the horrors of the Civil War, and maybe rename the avenue to avoid confusion, and call it a day. Declare that instead of shrines to the generals who led the fight to preserve slavery and white supremacy, they’re actually “reminders of an old conflict, a fallen capital, and hazily articulated ideas about ‘states’ rights.'”
Here’s the thing about memorials: You don’t call attention to the victims and lessons of an event like the Civil War by erecting statues to the bad guys. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington doesn’t feature heroic, 60-foot-tall marble statues of Nazis. The National September 11 Memorial and Museum doesn’t have a special reflecting pool in honor of the hijackers. That’s because you don’t build memorials to the bad guys.
You want to preserve Confederate statues as a part of history? Put them in a history museum. (Plenty of towns and cities are opting to do so.) Display them in the context of what not to do. Add a plaque that reads, “This rearing equestrian statue of J.E.B. Stuart represents a commitment to white supremacy and yet still stood on Monument Avenue for over a century. The hell is up with that, right?” Because J.E.B. Stuart was one of the bad guys, and you don’t erect statues to the bad guys.
Let’s talk about the bad guys.
“The Civil War was actually about states’ rights.” Hahaha bullshit.
The Civil War was about maintaining slavery. Every state that issued a declaration of cause cited slavery as their reason for secession. Georgia had “numerous and serious causes of complaint against our non-slave-holding confederate States with reference to the subject of African slavery.” South Carolina and Texas were both pissed that northern states refused to return their escaped slaves, and they promised, y’all. And then there’s Mississippi: “Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery — the greatest material interest of the world.” Wonder what they were seceding for? It’s a mystery.
The Civil War was fought over the states’ rights to continue owning slaves when the federal government told them not to, and over the preservation of their agrarian economy that was wholly reliant on slave labor. Those things are about slavery. “If I didn’t pistol-whip that man and steal his wallet, I wouldn’t have been able to feed my family.” “Well, I suppose it’s just an economic issue, then. Case dismissed.”
Antebellum slavery in the South wasn’t bad because the employees were vastly underpaid. The slaves weren’t making waiter wages and living off tips. They were slaves. They were raped, beaten, and murdered. They were worked literally to death. Women were bred like livestock, and their children sold off. If they tried to escape their horrendous circumstances, they were hunted down with dogs and then tortured publicly as a warning to their fellow slaves.
If that’s what your economy depends on, get a new economy. And if your dude was fighting for his right to continue doing that, or for someone else’s right to continue doing that, your dude was a bad guy. Regardless of his excuse for doing so, he was putting his life on the line in defense of a system that destroyed innocent lives and upheld a culture of white supremacy that, let’s not kid ourselves, we still struggle with today, to the detriment of real, human people.
Let’s talk about real, human people.
Let’s look away, for the moment, from the plight of people who are not real because they’re 14 feet tall and made of bronze. Let’s look at real, human people — for instance, the black citizens of and visitors to New Orleans who have to walk around every day amid bronze and stone monuments to the architects of atrocities against people who looked like them who were abused and murdered in the name of economics and white supremacy. And for that matter, let’s talk about real, human people across the South, black and white, who get 28 days of tribute to black history every year and 365 days of tribute to the foundations of the institutionalized white supremacy that required many of such heroics from oppressed black people in the first place.
New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu gave a speech to explain the relocation of Confederate monuments around the city, and it should be required reading/viewing. (Video and transcript are available at the link.) He addresses frankly the history of the Civil War and slavery in New Orleans, the origins of the statues that have been removed, and their impact on real, human people.
First erected over 166 years after the founding of our city and 19 years after the end of the Civil War, the monuments that we took down were meant to rebrand the history of our city and the ideals of a defeated Confederacy. It is self-evident that these men did not fight for the United States of America; they fought against it. They may have been warriors, but in this cause they were not patriots. These statues are not just stone and metal. They are not just innocent remembrances of a benign history. These monuments purposefully celebrate a fictional, sanitized Confederacy; ignoring the death, ignoring the enslavement, ignoring the terror that it actually stood for.
And after the Civil War, these statues were a part of that terrorism as much as a burning cross on someone’s lawn; they were erected purposefully to send a strong message to all who walked in their shadows about who was still in charge in this city.
A piece of stone — one stone. Both stories were history. One story told. One story forgotten or maybe even purposefully ignored. As clear as it is for me today… for a long time, even though I grew up in one of New Orleans’ most diverse neighborhoods, even with my family’s long proud history of fighting for civil rights… I must have passed by those monuments a million times without giving them a second thought. So I am not judging anybody, I am not judging people. We all take our own journey on race.
I just hope people listen like I did when my dear friend Wynton Marsalis helped me see the truth. He asked me to think about all the people who have left New Orleans because of our exclusionary attitudes. Another friend asked me to consider these four monuments from the perspective of an African-American mother or father trying to explain to their fifth-grade daughter why Robert E. Lee sat atop of our city.
Can you do it? Can you do it? Can you look into the eyes of this young girl and convince her that Robert E. Lee is there to encourage her? Do you think she will feel inspired and hopeful by that story? Do these monuments help her see a future with limitless potential? Have you ever thought that if her potential is limited, yours and mine are too? We all know the answer to these very simple questions. When you look into this child’s eyes is the moment when the searing truth comes into focus. This is the moment when we know what we must do — when we know what is right. We can’t walk away from this truth.
To literally put the Confederacy on a pedestal in our most prominent places in honor is an inaccurate recitation of our full past. It is an affront to our present, and it is a bad prescription for our future. History cannot be changed. It cannot be moved like a statue. What is done is done. The Civil War is over, and the Confederacy lost — and we are better for it. Surely we are far enough removed from this dark time to acknowledge that the cause of the Confederacy was wrong.
And in the second decade of the 21st century, asking African Americans — or anyone else for that matter — to drive by property that they own; occupied by reverential statues of men who fought to destroy the country and deny that person’s humanity seems perverse; it seems absurd. Centuries-old wounds are still raw because, you see, they never healed right in the first place. Here is the essential truth: We are better together than we are apart.
Earlier this week, as the cult of the lost cause statue of P.G.T Beauregard came down, world renowned musician Terence Blanchard stood watch, his wife, Robin, and their two beautiful daughters at their side. Terence went to school on the edge of City Park named after one of America’s greatest heroes and patriots, John F. Kennedy. But to get there, he had to pass by the monument to a man who fought to deny him his humanity.
He said, “I’ve never looked at them as a source of pride… it’s always made me feel as if they were put there by people who don’t respect us. This is something I never thought I’d see in my lifetime. It’s a sign that the world is changing.”
The removal of these monuments all over the South doesn’t represent a denial of history, or an attempt to sweep it under the rug. It represents an acknowledgement that that history wasn’t honorable, that the figures honored weren’t working for the benefit of all, but were in fact fighting to sustain white supremacy and the subjugation of real, human people. It represents an acknowledgement that we have to place the humanity of real, human people above any ignorant, misguided, and/or bigoted affection for 14-foot-tall people made of bronze.
We don’t need to deny or hide our history. We need to put it where it belongs: in a history museum. And without ignoring those dark spots in our history, we need to celebrate the figures who fought against subjugation and for the humanity of real, human people, so that that fifth-grade girl can look up to someone who encourages her, inspires her, and helps her see a future with limitless potential.
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