Apparently this needs to be spelled out for people.
States and cities across the country are reevaluating their Confederate monuments and considering how to best contextualize them: with plaques, in museums, spray painting smiley faces on them, etc. While statues get the spotlight, “monuments” include more than bronzed idols, but also school names, street names, and any areas in which public celebrations of the Confederacy — a failed attempt to cement the chains of slavery for perpetuity — remain a part of everyday life.
Let us be clear: we are in no danger of the history of the Civil War being erased. There are at least 70,000 Civil War books published (as of 2002!!). There seems to be at least one new biography on Lincoln every year. Let alone the countless biographies of Lee, Grant, Longstreet, McClellan. Glory and Gettysburg are two of the greatest war movies ever made. Their racist cousins Gone With the Wind and The Birth of a Nation are pretty well-known, too.
Every town with a Civil War past celebrates it in some way — whether through street names or public parks or school mascots. And being that this was a “civil war,” that list of towns is quite extensive. In a hilarious “exception that proves the rule” situation, Donald Trump found the only place in Virginia that wasn’t a Civil War battlefield and pretends it was!
Unless the United States is hit by a massive Men in Black neuralyzer (or we start massive book-burning festivals), there is no chance of the history of the Civil War being erased by taking down statues or renaming elementary schools.
Let’s look at one small piece of a huge picture: Hampton Roads, Virginia.
What is the purpose of celebrating “Prince John” Magruder, whose claim to fame is stopping the army of the United States from asserting control over the Chesapeake? What is being celebrated on Lee-Jackson Day, held less than a week away from Martin Luther King, Jr. Day? Should children, raised in the shadow of Hampton University’s Emancipation Oak have to attend Jefferson Davis Middle School or Lee Elementary?
And this is just one town. This exercise can be done in countless places across the country. The answers should, of course, be obvious. In a mind-boggling turn of events, they are not.
The national headlines focus on the statues dotting our landscape. And, indeed, statues are powerful symbols. In 2003, the liberation of Baghdad climaxed when a statue of Saddam Hussein was torn down on live television. Across Europe, statues of Lenin and Stalin have been gleefully destroyed, providing a symbolic catharsis; Soviet tyranny is over. In 2011, a university under siege by a horrific scandal removed the statue of the winningest coach in NCAA football as a symbolic appeasement for its sins. None of those moments erased any history. Instead, they shifted the celebration of that history.
Statues are not monuments of public history; statues are monuments of public memory. They become the totems around which we remember and contextualize the past in the present. This is intentional: statues are raised to purposefully and literally set certain narratives in stone. Narratives that become traditions. Over time traditions may even feel like facts, and the memory of how and why they were crafted get lost, shrouded from public consciousness. They become axiomatic: traditions are traditions because they’re traditional.
But when traditions are built on lies, crimes, and bigotry, no matter what else they may represent, they will be subject to the shifting wills of time. Traditions change. Sometimes naturally, sometimes not.
Change does not mean erase. History is always changing. That’s one of the alluring things about studying it. But where history deals in facts, memory deals in tradition. Tradition cares not for cold, objective fact, but feeds on stories, rituals… belief. Belief in a past wrapped in a subjective truth.
Statues that were built and supported by cynical politicians hoping to manipulate their constituencies; statues that deliberately injure and offended neighbors and friends for bigotry’s sake; statues that glorify a failed rebellion against the United States that needlessly cost 600,000 American lives… these are not monuments to the celebration of public history. These are monuments to a public memory that assaults the very core of what it means to be American.
Removing these legacies to the Confederacy — many of which were not established until the mid-20th Century for explicitly racist reasons — will not only help relieve a social tension that has resulted in tragic violence, but will add a new chapter to the history of the nation. A chapter in which our history stopped being a sacrosanct myth and became a reflection of truth, sometimes uncomfortable and sometimes ugly, but rooted in the reality of the moment. Don’t be afraid of history or history’s judgment. Learn from it.