Confederate statues retreat from the public squarest last
The heroes of the Confederacy statues are gradually disappearing from their places of honor. It’s high time.
Since a white supremacist’s massacre of nine black church-goers in Charleston, S.C., two years ago, a long-delayed conversation about Confederate symbols has lurched forward. So have some tangible outcomes worthy of applause. The Confederate battle flag was removed from the South Carolina capitol the month after the rampage, and New Orleans just Friday took down a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee — the last of four monuments the City Council had voted two years ago to remove.
These contentious removal processes are marked by more than heated arguments. White nationalists rallied in Charlottesville, Va., which is still in the midst of its drama. Demonstrations in New Orleans included glorifiers of the Confederacy who showed up heavily and conspicuously armed.
Again and again, the statues’ defenders charged that removing the likenesses of Lee, Jefferson Davis and P.G.T. Beauregard will erase history. One opponent of New Orleans’ statue removal project asked, “Should the pyramids in Egypt be destroyed since they were built entirely from slave labor?”
Setting aside the debunked claim about slaves and pyramids, this argument misses the mark. True, preserving history is vital and necessary. But statues of Confederate heroes are not the way to do it. Because they confer honor and glory on the subjects depicted — and, inescapably, those subjects’ larger cause — the statues actually distort history. They obscure the central role of slavery in the nation’s bloodiest war and trumpet a message that the Confederacy was purely noble and worthy of esteem.
Why would we want to say that about those who fought a war against the United States to defend the buying, selling, owning of human beings? And why should African-American citizens today be expected to tolerate these reminders as they go about their daily business?
There are far better ways to publicly remember history. Some of these I have seen myself.
When I was 20, I visited the Dachau Concentration Camp Memorial in Germany. I saw the ovens in which the bodies of Jewish prisoners were burned. The sight is seared into my memory, as is the large sign at the site. “Nie wieder,” it says — never again.
The Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum in Japan also does history right. While visiting several years ago, I was struck by its candid telling of the history of Japanese aggression and militarism leading up to World War II and the city’s eventual atomic bombing by the United States. Through photos and artifacts (such as a melted watch stopped at the time the A-bomb landed, 8:15 a.m.) the museum captures the devastation. But rather than wallowing in victimization and vindictive anger, rather than glorifying the “divine” emperor and heroism of Japanese soldiers, the museum takes a balanced, self-critical look at Japan’s guilt.
Those defending no-context Confederate memorials would do well to take a cue. As they would from an episode at the university where I work, Yale, which has been undergoing a painful process of its own to come to terms with slavery-tainted memorializing.
For several years, students and activists have pressured the university to rename the residential college bearing the name of 19th century politician and slavery champion John C. Calhoun. During the vociferous debates, the university formed a committee to identify the principles that should guide renaming decisions in this case and others that will surely arise.
One of its key findings: Preserving history is necessary and important — but different from commemorating and honoring a historical figure. To name an important institution after someone is to honor him or her. Yale has since decided to rename Calhoun College for a computer science pioneer and retired Navy rear admiral, Grace Murray Hopper. (Some carvings and other physical representations of Calhoun will remain, as well as decisions about what to do with them.)
What is the point of Confederate statutes in the South? To send a message that the wrong side won the Civil War? That slavery should have continued? Philip Gorski, a Yale professor and author of the new book American Covenant, sees the statues as a “half-disguised reaffirmation of white supremacy” that violates the American creed proclaiming all of us are created equal.
Perhaps the towering statues of the Confederate pantheon would not be such a daily insult to black citizens if they were contextualized by something analogous to the nie wieder sign at Dachau, or couched in documentation acknowledging what the Confederates were fighting for.
At the very least, let’s have historical context added to the sites where the statues now stand, acknowledging the stain of slavery at the heart of the story. Better yet, the statues should be moved to a museum setting, which is what New Orleans is doing. People who are interested in history may seek the statues out and learn more. Those going about their daily business — especially black people — need not be subjected to them and their chilling message.
Without doubt, the history of the Civil War must be preserved. But it’s past time to free the public square from statues of Confederate heroes and the ignoble cause they represent.
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