What's The Deal with Confederate Symbology? In 2020.
Updated: May 22, 2020
The debate about what to do with Confederate monuments, memorials, statues, and flags is still smoldering. In 2020.
Sadly, it took nine innocent lives taken by a Confederate flag loving white supremacist for many in America to understand what black folks have known all along about the meaning of that flag. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, 114 Confederate monuments have been removed from public spaces since the 2015 massacre at Mother Emanuel church. In March, the Virginia General Assembly paved the way for local cities and towns to decide what to do with the Confederate statues et al that they own and maintain. (All eyes on Richmond!)
Some decry the actions to remove Confederate symbols from public spaces as an attack on history. Others put forward a variety of other arguments, each of which have the impact of - in the end - preserving the symbols where they are.
In my opinion, Confederate symbology has no place in the public square. Here's why:
Monuments and memorials are a function of who a community chooses to honor and revere.
On a daily basis these objects make a statement about a community's identity and values; expressing who they are and who they exalt as the very best of them.
Removing Confederate symbols from public spaces doesn't attack history. In fact, it has no impact on it whatsoever. History is in no way tethered to monuments. It is simply what we choose to study and teach about our past. It will, obviously, include a much broader range of people and events - all consequential - but some good and some not so good.
To be sure, who we praise and who we study are simply not connected. Leaving these monuments up has the impact of sending the wrong signals about who we are today as a people. It also needlessly offends and can be used/misused as a tool of hate and violence.
Others frequently argue that leaving Confederate monuments up presents a valuable teaching opportunity for recontextualization. It is said that instead of removing them, we should simply add additional historic interpretation to them to create a more complete and contemporary understanding.
I hear this argument quite a bit but have never actually seen any additional such interpretation. In fact, Charleston City Council had the opportunity to create this kind of clarifying language for its Calhoun monument but took a pass.
Others present the 'slippery slope' argument; that if we remove a Confederate monument today, then we'll be taking down the Washington Monument tomorrow. On its face, the Confederacy was a white supremacist, terror group that killed hundreds of thousands of Americans trying to destroy the United States so they could continue enslaving other human beings. And George Washington wasn't. Comparing them to our nation's first president because he owned and enslaved other human beings himself - seems nonsensical and disproportionate. It's a matter of focus and degree. One can acknowledge the pervasive nature of American racism - and the fact that many notable wealthy Americans of the period owned human beings - without lumping everyone and everything tinged by it into the same proverbial pot. That argument has the intent of trying to neutralize critique of the most egregious and offensive actors.
No less than Robert E. Lee, commander of the Confederate army, understood the pernicious impact that these monuments could have on America. In 1869 he said, “I think it wiser not to keep open the sores of war but to follow the examples of those nations who endeavored to obliterate the marks of civil strife, to commit to oblivion the feelings engendered.”
Beyond their meaning to the nation as a whole, ponder the impact these symbols have had on African Americans. This country has always been hard on black folks, but in the course of everyday life, to live in communities that are saturated with hateful and oppressive symbols that are hostile to your identity and very existence is, at best, deeply, painfully offensive and exhausting. And at its worst, as we saw at Mother Emanuel, it is fatal.
I used to work a few blocks from Charleston's John C. Calhoun monument on Marion Square downtown. In a city that one of its African American leaders calls "Confederate Disneyland", this monument is, by far, the tallest and most prominent. Every time I walked past it, I was sickened by the knowledge both of what this man stood for as one of the great 'hype men' for slavery and the Confederacy, and the understanding of the impact of his legacy on millions of African Americans - including my ancestors.
As I walked past, I frequently wondered how current Charlestonians, many of them my friends and colleagues, could stomach it. I, further, pondered what their tacit approval of it said about them; about who they are, what they believe in, and even, by definition, what that inferred about their thoughts about me. One prominent community leader characterized Confederate matters as "kooky". While the intent of the remark was meant to de-fang the issue, in reality it did no such thing. Its passive aggressive dismissiveness simply looked the other way and supported a noxious status quo.
In the end, I had no choice but to conclude that while most, likely, would not publicly support Calhoun's belief that slavery was a "positive good", apparently - his legacy and its impact on millions of people - through what some call the greatest crime against humanity in history - just didn't rise to the level of offensiveness for them to do anything about. Apparently, neither the immorality and inhuman historic harm, nor the monument's current offensiveness and impact to African Americans really mattered.
At the end of the day, a monument is not a history book. It's a symbol of social pride and adulation. The study of history - in classrooms, books, and museums - should be full of people who were consequential, but not always praiseworthy. To be clear, the Confederate flag and many of the personalities who championed that effort, not only deserve to be studied. They must be studied. They just don't deserve to be in the public square.
Beyond that, isn't it time that America take African American perspectives and feelings more seriously? Let's be honest. We built the country. The value of our labor capitalized the economy. Our contributions to culture are manifest and profound. America wouldn't be America without us. Isn't that worth anything?