contextualizing confederate monuments: part 1

Three weeks ago, we witnessed a tableau of hate, violence and tension as white supremacist groups and others protesting them descended on the campus of the University of Virginia, Charlottesville.  At the center of those gathered was a statue of Robert E. Lee, Commanding General of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia.  The violence on display there was despicable, but beneath all of the hate and frustration lurks a question haunting every American: What do we do with our past? 

In Charlottesville and in many other cities, citizens are asking and yelling answers to the question of how we deal with the many confederate monuments littering our town squares. America has a wonderful history of liberation, sacrifice and generosity.  We also have a lengthy past of violence against people of color, greed and hypocrisy.  For the most part, we have not found a way to explore these conflicting legacies in our churches, classrooms, or in the public sphere. 

Abraham Lincoln famously signed the Emancipation Proclamation; Lincoln also less famously argued that if he could preserve the Union without ending slavery he would do so.  The conflict he experienced and the priorities he gave his passions can serve as a metaphor for our current conversation.  Most Americans agree that slavery was bad, but many refuse to admit that the idea of the South to which they cling produced the odious institution of slavery.  If monuments celebrating the Confederacy only represented slavery, people would be less likely to overtly defend their places of honor.  These mementos do not only represent one story though, and if we examine what they signify we might better understand the debate surrounding them.

Most Americans agree that slavery was bad, but many refuse to admit that the idea of the South to which they cling was based on white supremacy and produced the odious institution of slavery.

I believe the magnitude of passion surrounding this issue is due, in large part, to the national angst felt about the Civil War.  Was secession a hateful and treasonous act of aggression in order to protect the cruel practice of slavery?  Was it a noble stand to preserve states’ rights and defend against Northern aggression?  Having studied many angles of American history and the conflicts that resulted in and were partially resolved by the Civil War, I would like to contextualize this debate by revisiting the history that is memorialized by the argued-over monuments.  I do this hoping we can be more precise in what we are arguing about, and to help articulate precisely the history for which we advocate.

In the decades leading up to the Civil War, Southern states and their congressional representatives began to realize that they were in danger of becoming a minority in the United States’ Congress.  This reality, along with the impact of William Lloyd Garrison, Sojourner Truth and Frederick Douglass, whose abolitionary voices were growing louder, and the active resistance of the slaves themselves, led the Southern states to actively advocate for new states to enter the Union as slave states.  Battles over this desired balance led to legislation like the Compromise of 1850, the Missouri Compromise and the Kansas-Nebraska Act.  These acts upheld the precarious balance of states, providing equal numbers of slave and free states, and importantly, protection for the rights and legislative power of slaveowners.  The South seceded when threats to that balance—and the power it protected—finally seemed to permanently favor free states. 

Profits from slavery paid off American debts after the Revolutionary War, and continued to be crucial to the economic foundation of our country.

The economic stability of the country, both in Southern plantations and in Northern factories, was dependent on harvested cotton.  Harvested cotton was entirely dependent on the practice of slavery.  Indeed, the work product of slavery had paid off American debts after the Revolutionary War, and continued to be crucial to the economic foundation of our country.  Knowing this, many defenders of Confederate monuments, and lovers of a romanticized Southern past, remember that slavery was not only a dirty pleasure of the South, but a necessity for the United States of America.  These Americans feel unfairly blamed for slavery, as if white Southern ancestors were evil and greedy, rather than making the best of a system the entire citizenry willingly endorsed and relied on for decades. 

It is likely that America’s survival as a postcolonial powerhouse would have been impossible without the foundation of slavery.  Slaves provided the expertise and labor that made the South financially great and culturally worth remembering.  Our country was built by, on the bodies of, and under the creative leadership of African and African American men and women who were owned by white people.  The entire country benefitted from this institution, and white Southern defensiveness about being solely blamed for two centuries of an atrocious moral lapse is logical when seen in this light.  However, when powerful voices began to acknowledge the horrific nature of slavery, and tried to take active steps to free slaves and extricate themselves from this outrageously destructive bind, Southern states defended the practice to such an extent that they seceded from the Union that gave them their American identity.  Despite the justifying narrative of Christian paternalism, the Confederacy was established and built on the idea of white supremacy and cruelty against slaves.  Indeed, the Vice-President of the Confederacy, in his Cornerstone speech, asserted his new government was built “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.” Confederate soldiers fought and died to uphold a racial hierarchy, and the monuments at issue here are, by definition, representatives of this view. 

Slaves provided the expertise and labor that made the South financially great and culturally worth remembering.  Our country was built by, on the bodies of, and under the creative leadership of African and African American men and women who were owned by white people.

Although the South lost the war, a new war quickly began for the memory of who the South was, how slavery functioned in it, and why the physical war occurred.  In the words of Robert Penn Warren: “in the moment of its death the Confederacy entered upon its immortality.”  Peter Kolchin, in his definitive history American Slavery, explains that during and after Reconstruction, and later while monuments were erected, “white scholars, politicians, and publicists celebrated the virtues of a Southern civilization now ‘gone with the wind’ and sang the glories of the ‘lost cause.’ An uninformed observer of the South in 1910 might well be pardoned if he or she concluded that the Confederates had won the Civil War.”  The placement of Confederate monuments all over the South solidified this created—and now lasting—memory of Southern nobility.  In next week’s essay I will define the mythology of the Lost Cause, explaining how it came to define the South, fueled the monument movement and solidified the new foundation for white supremacy.  As one historian put it, “High atop his monument in Richmond, Lee represented many of the inspirations Southerners now took from their heritage: a sense of pride and soldierly honor, an end to defeatism, and a new sense of racial mastery” (Blight).  In forming our views on the monument debate, it is worthwhile to examine our own thoughts about the South, the reasons for secession, and the place of white supremacy in our past and present.

let's talk about race: how did we get here?

Part II

Just as our country celebrates our Columbian heritage with a simple rhyme about 1492 instead of decrying a year which marked the beginning of mass murder and extermination, most Southerners think about slavery as a dark spot on our history, but also maintain images of sweet plantations, and proclaim there are no lasting effects from a system that ended 160 years ago.  The import of such thinking is that while the institution itself was unfortunate, everyone made the best of it and for the most part, we have no lingering impact.  This narrative, which is still roundly attested to as THE narrative of slavery in the South, conveys our collective amnesia as a nation and belies our need to rediscover our history.

This narrative, which is still roundly attested to as THE narrative of slavery in the South, conveys our collective amnesia as a nation and belies our need to rediscover our history.

An honest exploration of our collective past reveals the fact that slavery explicitly endorsed the dehumanization that colonization hid under religion and empire.  Slaves, human beings, were openly referred to, moved as, insured as, sold as and used as cargo or livestock.  The myth of Tara (Gone With the Wind) and the paternalistic, believing and therefore kind, plantation owner did not mitigate the systemic abuse of slaves.

Imagine you are a slave in 1820. If you profess an independent and solid faith in Christ, you are viewed suspiciously.  Literacy, or anything approximating literacy, is illegal in most states, so you cannot learn to read or write.  If you have natural leadership skills, you might often be beaten as a budding insurrectionist.  You are allowed to marry, but your owner likely doubts you are capable of loving relationships, so your children are sold away and your wife is rented out to another plantation 10 miles away.  These scenarios are not exceptions; they were the norm by a large margin. 

I bring this up because understanding these beginnings is crucial if we hope to understand where we are as a country today.  The seeds of dehumanization, planted in the colonial era, grew into the seedlings of racial abuse during slavery.  This poisonous plant then blossomed into a racially stratified society, and now produces the fruit of systemic, insidious, racially biased laws, protocols and business practices that often prevent people of color from functioning within the privileged norms of autonomous society. 

A cursory view of our more recent past is equally revealing.   For instance, imagine you are an African American female in 1960.  You are charged a higher rent than white people for the same apartment.  Even if you find a job that pays less to you than to your white counterparts, save money, and find a house to buy, you cannot find a bank to carry your mortgage.  From trying to get lunch in town to needing to use the restroom while out and about, your kids are daily reminded that healthy, normal society views them as less than whites.  Jim Crow laws ensure that you continue to understand your exclusion from American society.  Taking the only job you can find, you ride the city bus out to a wealthy area, and become a maid and cook.  While your kids are left home alone with no one to care for them, you read stories and make treats for your employer’s children.  Your husband wants to save you from this horrible splitting of yourself, but he is powerless to change the system. 

You technically are allowed to vote, but you have family members who have been lynched for doing so.  Your husband is determined to beat the system, stay with the family, and achieve success, and because of this you are terrified he will be next.  Success is not rewarded for most minorities in America, but could instead earn you a death sentence.  In fact, more than 130,000 lynchings are recorded in the United States in the past 100 years.  Social forces remind you that you are not the equal of whites, and if you try to be then you are fired, put out of your home, beaten, lynched or killed.  The system, from top to bottom, is designed to keep him out of a job and away from your family. 

These experiences are a matter of historical record for the majority in the North and South only 60 years ago.  American laws and social policies ensured that people of color could not establish their value by providing a home, stable finances, a safe neighborhood, or a good school for their kids.  I believe this is the history that explains why so many African American men often looked for another way to justify their value as men.  This also explains why the streets in many urban settings have become the domain in which some men establish their dominance.  For centuries, the policies of our government and the practices of our businesses ensured failure for any black man who attempted to provide and protect his family in productive ways.

Since the Civil Rights Movement, we have come a very long way.  I see progress.  However, racism, racial misunderstandings, and unjust systems still abound. Indeed, one of the lasting impacts of this myth is that the white, Christian, Southern narrative of history AND our understanding of the present reality is incredibly difficult to challenge, especially by people of color.  I know that we are not past racial inequality when I see policies like stop and frisk, in the absurdly high percentages of African Americans in prison, in the demonization of mostly productive protest movements, and in the habits of parents of color teaching their sons how to perform a version of themselves that will appear non-threatening to white people in authority.  Today, in this country, a white man with a criminal record is more likely to be hired than a black man without a record.  I know there is still work to do when I hear the narratives that have emerged in the wake of Henry Louis Gates, Jr.’s arrest in Massachusetts, Trayvon Martin’s death in Florida, Ferguson, Missouri after Michael Brown, the lack of justice served in the death of Freddie Gray, the incomprehensible death of Philando Castile in Minnesota, and the police killings in Dallas and Baton Rouge. I am dismayed by our inability, especially in the church, to move beyond the “us” and “them” paradigm which served as the foundation for our country, and continues to promote the polarization and fear that leads to police who murder and are murdered.

I am dismayed by our inability, especially in the church, to move beyond the “us” and “them” paradigm which served as the foundation for our country, and continues to promote the polarization and fear that leads to police who murder and are murdered.

What can we do?  What should the church do? 

We can start by reclaiming this history that has been lost or mythologized.  One of the things we can do is to understand, explain, and listen to this history, letting it affect the way we think about race now.  Just 50 years ago most African Americans knew someone who was the victim of racially motivated violence.  Productive conversations can start when we humbly recognize centuries of wrong done to American minorities, not just 200 years ago, but in our own lifetimes.  We can understand the tension that exists.  We can stand up for the dignity of ALL people.  We can resist injustice, knowing the status quo is not good enough.  We can resist classism.  We can see racism for what it is, and gently or aggressively resist it in all its subtle and explicit forms.  We can try to build relationships with people who are not like us.  We can have compassion.  We can refute stereotypes and affirm the worth of every person.  We can acknowledge our own prejudice and reform our bad habits.  We can refer to all people as “us”.  We can challenge the basis of “them”.  Then, as communities and as people of God, we should pursue vulnerable people, building relationships with them, and loving them well.  Partnering with them, we can challenge and reform broken systems, habits, non-profits, and laws that keep impoverished minorities in crisis mode.  Relationships can develop across class and race when we understand and lean into the tension that exists, slowly replacing it with trusted partnerships.  Our communities will not be healthy and whole until we are all healthy and whole.  There is no them, there’s only us.

 

 

let’s talk about race: how did we get here?

Part I

In fourteen hundred and ninety-two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue.  We all know the rhyme; we all know the story.  I want to suggest, however, that the stories we know about how the Americas came to be, the stories we tell ourselves about how race and culture and ethnicity affected us then and continue to affect power dynamics now, are grounded in little more than nursery rhymes.  In fact, much of our collective consciousness around black and white and value and relationships are rooted in a history that is no history at all.

Long before the days of Manifest Destiny, Columbus and crew sailed with the assurance that the world was theirs for the taking.  They had conquered or co-opted much of the known world; in their eyes, they had earned their cultural dominance.  Even more importantly, they sailed with the full endorsement of the Catholic Church.  In this early Imperial Age, the church was very much in bed with the monarchies with whom they mostly shared power.  The church advanced the cause of Empire in order to expand their own power, and, crucially, they justified such expansion because it saved souls.  They were merely taking the Great Commission of Christ literally.  Or so they say.

The church advanced the cause of Empire in order to expand their own power, and, crucially, they justified such expansion because it saved souls.

What are the lasting impacts of the Church’s endorsement of the colonial endeavor?  Certainly Catholic, and later Protestant churches were established all over the developing world.  Perhaps they even expanded the Kingdom of God.  The greatest legacy of their work, however, in my view, is what we now call the “us” and “them” mentality.  It is all the rage to call this we and they paradigm out for what it is:

Toxic.

Divisive.

Exclusive.

Self-serving. 

The playthings of those with power.  The antithesis of the Kingdom of God that Jesus came to earth to establish and charged us with advancing. 

Here is the dirty little secret of the way America came to be: The entire Colonial system, in which European empires dominated most of every other continent on earth, was only viable because the Church endorsed an “us” and “them” mentality.

Conquering a land and controlling its people is dirty business.  For the Church and Empire to successfully invade, dominate, and colonize another land and people group, much violence is required.  Subjugating other human beings is difficult to rationalize.  Unless—and here is the genius and the devastation of colonialism, and racism during and after it—the conqueror creates distance between himself and the conquered by dehumanizing them. 

They don’t have religious rituals with which I am familiar.  In that case we can enslave them.

They don’t wear clothes like I do.  In that case we can enslave them.

They don’t communicate in ways I understand.  In that case we can enslave them.

They don’t participate in culture, government or social structure in ways that are familiar to me.  In that case we can enslave them.

The colonial endeavor demanded such differentiation.  Prosperous colonization requires invading peoples to view pre-existing peoples as, essentially and ultimately, “Other.”  These assumptions are found in nearly every recorded episode of colonization in our global history.

This type of thinking dehumanized vulnerable people groups, and allowed systems like slavery to prosper.  The raping and pillaging of another person’s land was easy once its inhabitants were contained.  This same sort of thinking, perhaps best captured by the phrase white cultural normativity, continues in 2017 to marginalize people of color whose cultures and habits fall outside what majority culture has deemed normal, and therefore safe and productive for society.  This thinking has led to widespread cultural racism, to the criminalization of brown skin, and to the undervaluing of black lives as contributing, creative, compassionate leaders in our society.