The Confederacy, revisited

Just about three years ago, I wrote a post here about the debates over removing Confederate monuments in the US, primarily but not only in the South. In that piece, I provided multiple examples to make my point, which was this:

The debate over whether to remove these monuments and memorials must be, I think, context-specific — which memorial, removed to where, and replaced by what — and just as importantly, accompanied by questions of how to complicate and re-create their function in the landscape by robust discussion over what this history means and how to present it in all its complexity, ugliness, and significance.

This issue of commemorating the Confederacy never went away in towns and cities and statehouses all over the US (and, unbelievably, in Canada as well), and has come roaring back to national attention in the last month amid Black Lives Matter protests confronting police violence. In many places, these protests have focused their ire on statues and monuments to Confederate generals and soldiers, pulling them down or otherwise defacing them, not just in the South, and not only in the US. A statue of Edward Colston, a slave trader who later became a philanthropist in Bristol, England, was toppled and thrown in the harbor where his slave ships docked in the 17th century. In Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, a statue of John A. Macdonald, Canada’s first prime minister has been splattered with red paint. Macdonald helped establish Canada’s brutal residential school program, designed to separate First Nations children from their parents and communities and force assimilation, and the only large Canadian city west of Ontario that still has a statue of him up is Regina, where pressure is building to remove it. Statues of Christopher Columbus in multiple cities have been toppled and beheaded. In New York, the American Museum of Natural History has decided to remove the statue of Teddy Roosevelt that stands at the building’s entrance. Confidently sitting atop a horse and flanked by African and Native American men, the statue was installed in 1940, and has been a frequent target of vandalism. As Mabel O. Wilson, a prominent African-American designer and architect who served on a 2017 city commission reviewing public arts and monuments, stated it in looking at what the statue told viewers and visitors:

It always to me seemed like a narrative of domestication. Like the horse has been tamed, the Native American, the indigenous populations had been tamed. The conquest of the African continent was also about sort of taming the savage, right? The savage beast […] And that was the narrative that was communicated to me.

So when I look back on my post and my thinking from just three short years ago, I must admit, my conclusions are equivocal and convoluted in ways that I should now revisit and reconsider. I have been strongly in favor of removing Confederate monuments and renaming streets, schools, and other public places that glorify the “Lost Cause” of the antebellum Southern plantation class and claim to represent the heritage of the region and the people who live there. What is the cause that was being pursued at the time? You can dress it up as “state’s rights” or something abstract, but the right that was defended was the right to own other human beings. People at the time knew it was wrong, argued against it, fought against on legal and moral grounds, and even took up arms against it. People who argued for it made explicit connections to the defense of slavery as an institution and of white supremacy as an organizing principle of society, government, and the economy. Why is anyone who defended that system celebrated in any public space more than 150 years after the Civil War ended in the shattering defeat of the South and the elimination of chattel slavery?

America has never yet fully reckoned with that past or the betrayal of Black rights and people that came with the end of Reconstruction, the formal institutionalization of segregation under Jim Crow in the South, and the million subtle and overt forms of racial terror and control that took hold across the rest of the country. This is why we still see Jefferson Davis, an unrepentant racist who left the Senate to lead the Confederacy in taking up arms against the US, celebrated with a statue in the Kentucky state capitol rotunda until June 2020, when his statue was finally removed. A plaque declaring Davis a “PATRIOT – HERO – STATESMAN” had been removed earlier in 2018. This isn’t old news – that statue dates to 1936, funded by the United Daughters of the Confederacy, who also placed the plaque there in 1975. Davis still has a concrete obelisk memorializing him in a state park bearing his name at his birthplace in the western Kentucky town of Fairview. This park will be the new home of the removed statue, and it’s no small roadside attraction either. At 351 feet high, the Davis obelisk is, according to Wikipedia, the fifth-tallest monument in the US, and the tallest unreinforced concrete structure in the world. In its description of the park surrounding the obelisk, the Kentucky State Parks website tries to provide as little historical detail as possible, stating that the museum “provides visitors with a bit of insight into this leader’s fascinating life” and that aside from being the elected president of the Confederate States of America, he was also a “popular West Point graduate” with “a distinguished military career before serving as a congressman and senator.” You can buy Civil War memorabilia and a copy of the Emancipation Proclamation in the gift shop, but having never visited that park in my home state, I can’t tell you if the museum details that Davis owned over 100 slaves.

There is no reason to sugar coat any of this history. Those who pretend that the public statuary and nomenclature memorializing Confederate leaders is anything other than an attempt to rebuild in the public eye and space the racial hierarchy of the Old South is willfully ignorant of that history. The vast majority of these statues and place names did not get put in place until two generations had passed beyond the war and the South had begun to industrialize, threatening the residual planter class’ social, economic, and political standing and the grip of racial terror that the end of Reconstruction allowed to flourish. At that point in the 1910s and 1920s, the Klan resurfaced and millions of Black Americans fled the lynchings and terror of the South for Northern cities. The reimposition of slavery in new forms was not lost on people at the time. Millions of people who had been born into slavery and won their freedom in 1865 were still around to watch statues of Davis, Lee, Jackson, Forrest, and other Confederate military and political leaders fill the square to applause and pretty speeches about the proper social order and remembering their sacrifice. Why does the Confederate general who fought a traitorous war to preserve the right to own humans like cattle get remembered with prominent statues and his name plastered on streets and schools, but the Black Americans who survived the beatings, humiliation, and terror of slavery and its aftermath get shunted to the side? It’s not hard to find their names and their stories. There is no erasing history when you take down a statue, and to argue such is, frankly, stupid or malevolent or both. And most of the nameless smaller statues of Confederate soldiers gracing posts and buildings across the US are of little to no aesthetic value, mass produced in factories (usually in the North) from prefabricated parts and often identical to those commemorating Union soldiers because they rolled off the same casting line.

But let me allow Gary Chambers, activist in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, to make this point. At a school board meeting discussing the placement of Robert E. Lee’s name on a school, Mr. Chambers presents to the board a compelling argument against further validation and valorization of the Confederate past in public statuary and place names better than I can in my own academic-lite language.

So with that, let me reconsider what I said before about Confederate monuments. Take them down. They are an affront to a society and a public that claims the mantle of freedom, democracy, and justice, and a reminder that the best we’ve done is not even close to good enough. Is this a slippery slope and an invitation to anachronistic historical revisionism? Will we start taking down monuments to Washington, Jefferson, and other Founding Fathers? Maybe, and if it is, so what? Monuments and statues reflect the moment of their creation, and if they survive that is because they speak to something larger in our relationship to that historical narrative. But the crucial question is whether we know how to present the complexity of historically important individuals and moments in fixed form in the landscape? There is no good answer to this, it requires deliberation and the ability to see what has created injustice and pain that persists beyond the historical moment or individual. Only then can the problem of what must be preserved, what can be jettisoned, and what deserves the public square be answered with any democratic legitimacy and accountability.