contextualizing confederate monuments: part three

what should we do with them?

Last week I discussed the origin and popularity of the myth of the Lost Cause in the Southern United States.  Confederate monuments were erected as a permanent public reminder of the Lost Cause, which revised the history of the South, making it a kind and loyal place, gently controlled by Christian men who protected their women and nurtured their slaves.  Many of the organizations that funded the monument movement were openly founded on the Christian legitimacy of the South and on the supremacy of the white race.  We now find ourselves in a battle over this contested past.  Many proponents of the Lost Cause, mostly white people who love their Southern heritage, are understandably frustrated that some non-whites, liberal whites, or Northern whites, want to remove Confederate monuments, erasing history.  They feel defensive, as if their entire legacy is being vilified and erased by people with no right to speak into Southern history.  This viewpoint makes perfect sense if the only history of the South is the Lost Cause. 

However, most Southerners—of all races—do not know the full history of the South.  They don’t know that most plantations were owned by absentee landlords, and were simply plots of land, worked by people under the lash of an overseer, with no “humanizing” white family nearby.  They don’t know that Christianity and baptism were twisted and manipulated, finally shared with slaves only when evangelism could be used as a tool of coercion against the new converts.  They don’t know that the vast majority of white people did not own slaves, and were victimized by a system that allowed huge plantations with a self-replicating work force to thrive while they struggled to get ahead.  They don’t know that the institution of slavery fueled, funded and built every economic gain America experienced, and that America itself owes a deep debt of gratitude to the people of color who made America great and possible in the first place.  They don’t know that statues of men who prioritized personal gain over loyalty to America were erected to honor a fabricated Southern legacy.  This historical ignorance must be confronted in order to think clearly about the current Confederate monument debate.

The institution of slavery fueled, funded and built every economic gain America experienced; America itself owes a deep debt of gratitude to the people of color who made America great and possible in the first place.  

Here are the two sides of this debate as I understand them:

For many, the Civil War and the Confederacy are part of our history, and the men who fought in the war were valiant warriors loyal to their families, fighting for the rights of those in their states.  Honoring them has nothing to do with slavery, but instead commemorates the noble leaders who fought and died for their values in the bloodiest war America has ever known.  They are part of our history, and should be remembered.

For others, the monuments of Confederate leaders honor men who betrayed their country through legislated mutiny, and then fought for the right of their fellow statesmen to own, abuse, and control every aspect of the lives of their human chattel.  For these folks, the antebellum South, the Confederacy, the flag, and the soldiers who fought for the states who seceded are all fruit of the poisoned tree of slavery.  This past is fluid and invasive and one cannot separate part of the memory for honor when slavery was the reality that created the whole.

The antebellum South, the Confederacy, the flag, and the soldiers who fought for the states who seceded are all fruit of the poisoned tree of slavery.

So what are we to do with this history?  I do not think that we can praise every confederate honoree as an unblemished hero or as a despicable tyrant who should be shunned.  That said, we cannot pretend that this debate is about a choice to honor history when the statues themselves were created to erase history.  America is a mixed bag; we are brave and free and fair, while also being cowardly and abusive and greedy.  The idea that this debate has a side who want to ignore or erase history (those in favor of removing them) and a side who wants to learn from or honor history (those who want to leave them alone) is problematic.  The history memorialized by confederate statues is a history created after the Civil War to erase the evil of the history that established, paid for and built our country.  

We cannot pretend that this debate is about a choice to honor history when the statues themselves were created to erase history. 

As a Southern American, I agree that we cannot erase or ignore history by removing confederate statues.  We have inherited a legacy of erasing and white washing the very histories of hierarchies based on race left to us by our ancestors, and this debate gives us a chance to reckon not only with our past, but with the ways we continue to remember and disremember that past.  We are responsible, each of us, for what we do with the legacy left to us by our ancestors.  For my part, I do see a place for confederate monuments in public life, under these conditions:

1)   The monuments should be joined by other conflicted “heroes”, like slaves, slave rebellion leaders, abolitionists, and leaders who spoke truth to the power of white supremacy when it was dangerous to do so. (It still is dangerous to do so, in fact…) The commemoration of others will create a robust dialogue about the role of individuals in promoting or confronting systems of injustice.  America has a legacy of abusive oppression, but we also have a legacy of resistance and seeking justice for all.

2)   Existing monuments should be moved to museums or accurately contextualized with posted explanations.  Nathan Bedford Forrest was a brave confederate general AND a violent promoter of racial hatred as a slave trader and the Grand Wizard of the KKK.  Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence AND forced a teenage slave he owned to have sex with him and bear several of his children, whom he freed while continually writing that interracial mixing was an abomination and abhorrent to God.  Robert E. Lee was a tenacious general who believed slavery was “evil”, supported abolishing it, AND held racist views that slavery civilized Africans and that he would kill soldiers who fought to abolish it.  The question about moving statues to a museum instead of honoring them in public parks is not a question of who is willing to remember history, it is a question of who is willing to place these statues in the historical context in which the men they honor lived and died, rather than the manipulative context in which they were originally placed. 

Our history is neither all progress nor all degrading shame; we are and always have been mixed bags.  We would do well to take an honest look at what our “heroes” accomplished on their best and worst days, allowing that knowledge to explain the legacy we all carry, and what we are to do with it today.

Next week, a look at interracial dialogue happening at Lipscomb University this month.