One Step at a Time

Robert E. Lee statue in Emancipation Park, Charlottesville, VA (photo by Cville dog, Wikimedia Commons)
The political climate in this country has been heating up for some time now with tension, anger and spite from all sides.  But it seems to have come to a head with the recent protests surrounding Confederate memorials and the Unite the Right tragedy.  Social media has become a painfully sad reminder of just how divided our nation truly is over issues involving race.  Perhaps we have been this divided and the past election – or moreso what it represented to each person – has allowed for people to boldly vocalize where they stand.  Whatever the reason, my news feed has been nothing short of troubling and it has had me thinking about the happenings in today’s news as a reflection of those from the past.  There has been so much protest, racial mistrust and backlash.  Are we taking steps backward?  I would have said with confidence that a majority of people that I know, Christian and otherwise, harbor no actual malice toward other races. Yet in instances like Charlottesville, and the tad further back Charleston, the silence was deafening. This doesn’t imply hate, mind you, but it does lean toward a sort of modern cultural indifference.  It also leaves me to wonder if our silence concerning acts of hate truly does make us complicit.  If so, then we have a lot of work to do.
Following what I have been reading and hearing, I thought I would respond to the more common arguments I hear FOR the preservation of Confederate statues and other artifacts.

I have seen the explanation that these statues represent people’s lives, and to remove them is both disrespectful and wrong.  The reason being that there was insufficient funds with which to bury the Confederate soldiers, and these statues serve as a mass grave-site of sorts, giving space for loved ones to properly mourn.  Okay.  While it is true that the United Daughters of the Confederacy did raise funds and have a few memorials built, a lot of those are actually in war cemeteries – where they belong if the purpose is to provide the respect of more than just an unmarked grave and not to make a political expression. But really, that explanation is lacking for a few reasons:

1. If mass mourning provision was the true purpose of memorializing the Confederate soldiers, then why are hundreds of others in public park settings, in town squares, in front of court houses, etc? Why are there schools and other public buildings bearing the names of Confederate leaders at all?  It doesn’t ring true when you consider the location of the vast majority of these monuments, especially considering the dates in which most of these monuments were put up being many decades after the war (and the presumed time frame for mourning would have been long passed).

2. Let’s consider the dates that each statue was erected.  Most were put up alongside jim crow, and in times of political unrest, lynchings, Klan rallies, etc, some even as late as the civil rights era. Public buildings being named (or renamed) for prominent Confederate figures following episodes of social activism in the African American communities and its sympathizers could hardly be coincidental.

While I can’t speak certain truth to the hearts of those wanting these statues, you’d have to be intentionally trying to ignore the negative connections in the timing. The south lost the right to own slaves, but people of color were still treated like secondhand citizens, and worse following the end of war. I don’t think I need to remind anyone about segregation, or the systemic injustice that was born of it. But the south lost.  Since when does our country tout and celebrate loss of this nature, as well as potentially treasonous movements? We don’t. This fact alone indicates that the motives behind these memorials and their locations were meant to be far more than just a historical reminder of how far we have come.  They were intended, at least in their inception, to be a reminder, possibly even a warning, of one’s intended place in society.

Living in the South, I can attest to the fact that these statues and sometimes the Confederate flag are glorified by those defending them as part of their “Southern heritage.”  Frankly it’s weird and a bit sacrilegious to me to immortalize in public recreation areas soldiers who fought (albeit bravely and with an often shown cleverness for war) for not only the wrong side, but for the wrong things.  Yet time and again, I am met with an insistent declaration that the Civil War was NOT about slavery, but state’s rights!

However, the south succession ran parallel to its desire to continue to own other human beings for free labor (while amassing wealth off their backs). These facts, which have been whitewashed by revisionists to no end, cannot be disputed when you consider the words of the Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens in his Cornerstone Speech discussing the new Confederate nation and setting forth the tenets of its own Constitution.  “Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner- stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.”

In fact, Stephens went on to state that this very belief in African inferiority was an important motivator for seceding from the Union. “The new constitution has put at rest, forever, all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institution African slavery as it exists amongst us the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization. This was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution. Jefferson in his forecast, had anticipated this, as the “rock upon which the old Union would split.” He was right. What was conjecture with him, is now a realized fact.”

The concepts of treason and human trafficking are not remotely synonymous with American values, and yet, here these statues remain.  Most, if not all I must point out, lacking the inscriptions necessary to highlight that the Confederates’ loss was the very saving grace of our united nation and its people.  I am failing to see where these statues represent any understanding that slavery was immoral or even a stain on our nation’s tapestry. 

As to the argument that by removing these statues we will somehow “erase history” or “forget history,” let’s consider a few other truths:

We don’t have Hitler statues, yet we remember. We don’t have statues of the 9/11 terrorists, yet we remember. We don’t even have replicas of the Mayflower proliferating our southern landscape, yet we remember.

I am pretty sure Civil War history and its aftermath will not be lost to us, unless it is done so by the armchair historians who prefer the glorified Southern version to the factual one.

There is an insistence that these statues serve as an important reminder to us all of how far we have come and that the danger of removing them ensures we are doomed to repeat our past ills.  “Slavery happened!” they state.  “You can’t change the past, it’s in the past.  I wasn’t a slave owner any more than you were a slave!”  “We need to get over it if we want to move on!”  Or my favorite: “Where do we stop?  Other guys owned slaves, why not take them all down?”  These views also apply to the Confederate Flag.  “It’s about heritage, not hate!” 

These explanations and defenses are disingenuous at best, and at worst, so transparent in their misguided beliefs they make me cringe.

If history and heritage are the true purpose of Confederate artifacts, and the south lost, why do these monuments celebrate instead of decry all that those in gray worked toward? That’s factually repugnant if you are FOR a united states and against slavery.  The South was undeniably on the wrong side of history, both in their cause and actions, as discussed above.  The offense of these statues does not lie in the fact that these men owned slaves, as many prominent figures of the time did, but that they are commemorated in such a way as to subconsciously immortalize their superiority, while glossing over their grievous wrongs.  Life for African Americans following the Civil War showcase that ending slavery did not magically put an end to their suffering or their struggle to live alongside us as Americans.  History shows that time and again, it is they who have had to shoulder the burden of the past, and not the perpetrators.  It is they who have had to fight to earn the same rights we entitled to ourselves in our Constitution.  If you disagree, please allow 10 minutes of research and it would be hard to argue that it’s not the case.

Surely if we take pride in a united nation and the destruction of American slavery, we would instead choose to depict southern heroes (like Harriet Tubman for example) and not almost solely those who fought for the anti-American, unpatriotic causes that the confederate army did.  Or perhaps we could include sculptured renderings designed to evoke the powerful beauty of emancipation.  Many other countries have done accordingly in their attempt to move away from and reconcile, their darker past. Countries like Germany have even banned symbols that became associated to hateful ideologies, like the swastika.  (I have to point out that even without statues and symbols, they have not forgotten).  At the very least, monuments to the Confederacy could offer a humble warning of the wicked principles once forced upon those whose lack of rights the Confederate Army fought to uphold.  It could even be respectful if these statues were placed alongside a Union hero or social justice activist to put things in perspective, or further narrate the happenings.

Bussa Emancipation Statue, Barbados by Dogfacebob at English Wikipedia [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons
But that is not the case.  And in reality, there is a perfect place to preserve this historical documentation, and that is in museums. Inside museums. I never advocate for vandalism and believe what we have been seeing tends to drown out and diminish the necessary voices calling for progress.  Regardless, the reactions to these statues (on all sides) are hindering societal progression and general peace and shouldn’t be anywhere taxpayers dollars are used for recreation or business and not solely education.

I have never met anyone who wants to erase or forget history; I think especially those whose skin tone alone left them disenfranchised and abused would agree.  What happened is awful but such a very important part of our nation’s story that needs to be told and remembered.  But it’s ridiculous to say that history is sacred and must be respected while at the same time revising it to downplay both the reasons for war as well as the meaning of what we commemorate regarding it.

Let it be clear that I am no apologist, nor do I seek to patronize anyone with my words.  My truth is that before 2016, I was naively optimistic and even remarked to my Love that I truly believed our kid’s generation would be the one to officially death nail racism in this country.  I was convinced it had almost died out.  And then, throughout a gut wrenching and jading election cycle, out it emerged from the dark, as loud and ugly (and young!) as ever, boldly wearing collared shirts no less and it made me examine things from a perspective I found both uncomfortable and freeing… and necessary.
As a white person, there are a few things I think important to consider when taking inventory of certain parts of this nation’s culture and cementing your ideals as such.  Would you be willing to ask yourself some honest questions?  And would you prayerfully or earnestly check your gut response to these questions?

If roles and races were reversed, and it was you whose lineage had been stripped away, and it was you whose family had been sold and enslaved for generations, and you whose only known heritage now begins on a plantation, and born of horror, how would you feel about these statues and what is engraved on them?  Would you truly not react at least viscerally to the cold stone towering above you?

Would you accept sending your young child to a school – supported by your tax dollars – whose name is emblazoned with those who denied your right to exist not only as an equal among them, but denied you basic ownership over your own body? Wouldn’t you find it darkly ironic that the very oppressors who denied you the chance to read and write are honored to have schools named for them?  Would you be comfortable seeing the name of those who were willing to die to protect a blatantly false belief that you were inferior and undeserving of your own life, all because of the color of your skin, which God made?

Would you honestly be content and even appreciate going to a public park with your children and having to picnic and play near memorials honoring – instead of decrying – the very men who fought to keep you enslaved, while there are no memorials alongside it honoring freedom being won, and country unity?  In 2017, would you be okay with all of the above?  As someone contributing to society in a world far better for you than it was for your ancestors, would you feel that was enough to reconcile the past and is that how you would explain it to your children?  In 2017, would you feel patriotic watching people who have never been oppressed in this country because of their skin march in honor of the color of their skin, because of a constitutional right to freedom that many of your people had to suffer to earn many years after the marchers did?

I think if you are honest with yourself, the answer to these questions is a resounding, if uncomfortable, no.
There is a reason the 9/11 memorial is not in memory of the brave hijackers.  There is a reason Jewish kids don’t have to attend Hitler High School, and Christians don’t have to attend Osama bin Laden Elementary.  Part of our history as well, they represent all that is wrong, and we have never commemorated evil doing in this country…. except when it comes to racial injustice on our own soil. 

Perhaps the most important question… Why is that?

If we truly want to be united, then demonstrations like the unite the right in Charlottesville cannot be defended.  And there can’t be false equivalencies between movements borne of actual persecution and injustice and those created solely to instill fear and prop-up falsely held worldviews.  If we truly value our brothers and sisters of color, and I mean value, not just absent-mindedly consider equal, then why do we continue to defend these types of reminders and become upset when they are challenged?  Why do we continue to revise the historical symbolism of these statues, when we know they glorify an ill-gotten ideology enacted in a far too recent past?  Why is every Christian leader not loudly and boldly calling for us to follow our Saviors command that we love our neighbor as ourselves?  Wouldn’t that require non-silence in today’s world?  Would steps to repair look like taking down statues and replacing them with ones that commemorate true heroes?  Would it involve stopping the use of the Confederate or Nazi flag anywhere but in a museum?  Would repair look like offering DNA testing to anyone unable to know their family history due to the slave trade?

I don’t know.  But I can’t understand the refusal to acknowledge that we have not left our turbulent racial past where it belongs, and made things right, but instead have brought it with us into 2017. The probable answers to these questions, in my heart anyway, are not ones I like to consider as true, but I am starting to accept they may very well be just that, as I pay ever more attention to the political climate in our country today.

Obviously, statues are not people.  They hold little physical power short of falling on someone, yet their presence still evokes strong feelings of pride or pain depending on the viewer.  Removing them will not bring a sudden and miraculous end to systemic slavery, social injustice, or the racism hiding in hearts.

But, it is a step in the right direction.  And the only way to get where we must go is one step at a time.


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