[Opinion] Reclaiming History

Friday, Jul 10, 2020

Robert E. Lee statue in Richmond, Virginia, the former capital of the Confederacy.

Protestors have printed messages on the Robert E. Lee statue in Richmond, Virginia, the former capital of the Confederacy. Photo credit: Mobilus In Mobili/Flickr

As demonstrations against police brutality and systemic racism have erupted across the country and around the world, many protesters have taken aim at physical representations of the oppression Black people have faced for centuries: statues and monuments. 

Protesters have torn down Confederate monuments in areas across the country, from Virginia to Alabama to Washington, D.C., and beyond. But of the more than fifty monuments that have been removed over the past month, the vast majority were taken down by officials feeling pressure from their constituents, including on the campuses of the University of Alabama and Ole Miss, in Indiana, and in Florida. On Monument Avenue in Richmond, Virginia, multiple monuments are coming down. On June 10, protesters toppled a statue of Jefferson Davis. After a state law passed allowing local officials to remove statues, Richmond mayor Levar Stoney used his emergency powers to order the removal of Confederate statues on city property. Within a week, four of the five towering Confederate statues on Monument Avenue have been taken down. Meanwhile, Governor Ralph Northam has ordered the removal of a 61-foot-tall monument to Robert E. Lee that stands on state property, though a court has temporarily blocked his efforts. Not to be deterred, protesters have spray painted messages on the base of the monument and lit up the massive structure with pictures of George Floyd, Harriet Tubman, and Frederick Douglass. 

And it is more than just statues; institutions are casting aside Confederate symbolism of all kinds. The Navy has moved to ban Confederate symbols from bases and ships, while NASCAR has banned the Confederate flag from its events. This week, the Mississippi legislature voted to change the state flag, which was adopted in 1894 and bears the Confederate emblem. People around the world have brought new attention to the symbolism that our physical space projects. 

This movement driving people to the streets is not just about one horrific police killing—it is about challenging the very systems rooted in America and its history that dehumanize and devalue Black life, that set the conditions for police brutality. Confederate statues represent the myths and lies that underlie the persistent racism in American society. To tear down these symbols of historical oppression is to declare a new age, one in which we confront—rather than glorify—our history and confront the reality of who we are in the present. 

Monument Avenue in Richmond, Virginia, the former capital of the Confederacy, epitomizes the problem with Confederate monuments. Until Mayor Stoney initiated the removal of its statues, the street was lined with five Confederate figures: Jefferson Davis, Stonewall Jackson, Robert E. Lee, J.E.B. Stuart, and Matthew Fontaine Maury. The street was designed in 1890 as part of a neighborhood that excluded Black residents for decades. Once a symbol of the Lost Cause, the street can now represent a national turning point. 

In the wake of the Civil War, America faced a choice: to engage in the project of Reconstruction and redefine the nation as a true democracy for all citizens—including freed Black Americans—or to preserve the idea of white supremacy. 

By the 1890s, when the Robert E. Lee statue was erected in Richmond, it was clear the nation had chosen the latter. The Redemption Era took hold as white supremacy regained political and social control, and slavery morphed into Jim Crow segregation. Establishing these statues honoring Confederate figures served as a physical manifestation of the ideology that ruled the nation, a reminder of who held power. As historian Kevin M. Levin explains, the "Confederate monuments dedicated throughout the South from 1880 to 1930 were never intended to be passive commemorations of a dead past; rather, they helped do the work of justifying segregation and relegating African Americans to second-class status." 

This context is vital to understanding the impetus for today's pressure to remove these statues. The construction of Confederate monuments was meant as a message to tell Americans what and whom white people valued. Such efforts intensified as Black people gained more rights and moved closer towards equality throughout the twentieth century. Confederate statues are not simply about Southern heritage or pride—to say so would be to ignore the Black Southerners who have fought for generations against slavery and white supremacy.

The prevalence of Confederate symbols in the North makes clear that these symbols are about race, not geography. For example, the Massachusetts suburb of Walpole, a town nearby mine, chose the "Rebels" as its mascot in the 1960s. Up until the 1990s, Confederate flags adorned school teams' uniforms, filled the stands, and appeared in yearbooks. Until a few years ago, the yard next door to Walpole High School featured a large Confederate flag—whenever my high school teams played against Walpole, we drove past it on our way to the game. Even this year, school officials had to warn families not to bring "rebel flags" to the graduation ceremony. Not only was Massachusetts never part of the Confederacy, it fancies itself the birthplace of America, the pinnacle of its values of democracy and freedom. That Confederate symbolism looms so large here, tells you all you need to know about its purpose. 

The pervasiveness of Confederate imagery across the country is just a symptom of the larger disease of American racism, embedded in the warping of historical narratives. In The Fire Next Time, James Baldwin writes that white Americans are "still trapped in a history which they do not understand; and until they understand it, they cannot be released from it." Confederate statues, and the narratives and stories they support, are part of what continues to trap people and prevent progress. These statues do not exist in a vacuum; rather, they stand as part of a culture that refuses to acknowledge its true history. 

One of the chief arguments from those defending Confederate monuments, including President Trump, is that to remove them would be to erase history. In fact, the opposite is true. The statues themselves manipulate history and construct false narratives to support a particular vision of American society, one that supports white power. The Lost Cause myth is just that: a lie. In truth, the Confederacy was wholly opposite to the ideals America claims to cherish. In the words of historian Stephanie McCurry, "[f]ounded in an act of treason against the government its leaders had sworn to protect and serve, the Confederate States of America and its white-supremacist government waged a four-year war against the United States of America and the principles Americans value most highly."

This is the clarity with which Americans need to understand the Confederacy. But the narratives we tell—in the collective memory advanced by our physical space as well as our education system—equivocate and soften this history, creating a country in which nearly half of Americans, North and South, still do not believe slavery was the cause of the Civil War.

The Confederacy's Vice President Alexander Stephens described its purpose in stark terms in his infamous 1861 Cornerstone Speech. After criticizing the United States for building a society premised on "the equality of races," Stephens explained that the Confederacy "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." Confederate soldiers fought to enslave millions of Black Americans—the secession documents from southern states provide further proof of slavery being their reason for waging war. 

While the mission of the Confederacy is undeniable, Confederate monuments warp that reality, casting Confederate leaders as heroes defending a worthy cause, as ancestors to honor and elevate. Putting such historical figures on pedestals, physically as statues and metaphorically in historical narratives, embeds those lies into people's personal and national identities. So much of the ignorance and racism we see today is the result of miseducation, of people's misunderstanding of history. Sanitizing the past by glorifying those who oppressed others impedes progress today. Think about all the erasure of history that has to occur for people to interpret a flag carried by those who held people in bondage as merely a harmless demonstration of regional pride.

In Germany, everyday people don't wave Nazi flags and build monuments to Nazi leaders in appreciation of their ancestors. Children in school don't learn about World War II as the story of a glorious German army defending their homeland against unlawful invaders. In the public memory there is no equivocation on the horror of the Holocaust, no sanding of the edges to make the story more favorable to Germans. Instead, after decades of activism and debate, the physical space of the country honors the victims of the Holocaust, and elevates their stories. For example, in the capital city of Berlin, a massive Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe takes up 4.5 acres, swallowing you into the depth of the pain of that era. The absence of Hitler statues has obviously not erased the memory of the Holocaust; instead, the presence of structures and practices that acknowledge the evil of that period helps prevent the resurgence of such hatred.  

The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin, Germany.

The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin, Germany. Photo by Julia Chaffers

Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin, Germany.












This and other physical markers of those harmed by Germany's past do not themselves end racism and prejudice in that country; reshaping a society's physical space is not the only step to overcoming its history, but it is a vital one—it is the process of doing so that moves the nation forward. As Susan Neiman writes in The Atlantic, Berlin "was not rebuilt to reflect what it is, but what it ought to be. Berlin's public space represents conscious decisions about what values the reunited republic should commit itself to holding—decisions with which Americans are now struggling."

Compare that to America, North and South. In the Capitol building, the halls of democratic power, stand the busts of those who not only believed in the opposite values but actively waged war agains the United States. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell believes they should stay there, calling such efforts "nonsense" that seeks to "airbrush the Capitol"—as if the concerns were simply cosmetic. On even the very basic idea of not honoring those who tried to destroy your country, America has failed. How can we hope to succeed in dismantling an ideology we can't even agree is worth rejecting?

The first step to a new national identity, one based around equity and justice rather than racism and discrimination, is to build a physical space that reflects our values. Rejecting the most overt symbols of hate would put us on the right path. But removing these statues is the bare minimum. We must follow up with further action, reframing the way we teach and think about our history. We must be honest about he brutality of slavery, and the succeeding regimes of racial violence and oppression, including systems that persist to this day. Fighting against the current forms of racism requires us to recognize its past forms. We have to accept who we are in order to achieve who we want to be. 


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