Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Confederate Monuments

Let me just say right off the bat that this photo, taken in Hackney a couple of weeks ago, has nothing to do with the subject of today's post. I just liked the light and thought it was an interesting wall.

When I wrote about the outrageous events in Charlottesville the day before yesterday, I mentioned that I "have doubts about the wisdom of dismantling Confederate war memorials."

As I argued, "They're part of America's history, and rather than removing them we should be explaining them, and balancing their message with monuments that more accurately reflect our modern society and expectations."

I want to explore this issue a little further. I think my own perspective has evolved since I wrote those lines, and I want to explain why.

Let me say outright that I was born in the South, as many of you know, and I had ancestors who fought for the Confederacy and who owned slaves. But I've never fully identified as a "Southerner." To me, it's always been a dead issue -- the Civil War is over, and south is merely a direction on a compass. Neither I nor anyone in my immediate family have ever sympathized with the Southern cause, and I've never found it anything but absurd that some people believe the South "will rise again." I freely acknowledge that Southern culture is rooted in blood and barbarism, and I repudiate all of that.

What has made me uncomfortable is the idea of purging artworks (and statues are artworks) because they cause pain or discomfort to a group of people. This may seem cruel, given the circumstances, but it's a position I've long held regardless of the art. It seems positively Soviet to me to demolish statues because they don't convey the proper message.

(As a side note, I do not feel this way about the Confederate battle flag. A flag is an overtly political symbol, not an artistic one, and I was overjoyed when it was removed from the South Carolina capitol dome a couple of years ago. The Confederate flag has no place in current government, or, for that matter, in civil society.)

I accept that I don't look at these statues in the same way a black person does. I get that. I've always seen them as historic symbols, and figures like Robert E. Lee, to me, are more tragic than heroic or menacing. There's a sadness that permeates those generals on horseback.

But I can see now that there's defiance, too. One of my friends, a white woman from Tennessee who was one of my editors, and who I very much respect -- and who grew up immersed in Southern lore and virtually surrounded by monuments to Confederate leaders -- pointed out on Facebook that most of the Confederate statues that permeate the South were erected about 50 or 60 years after the end of the war, during a time when the KKK was in resurgence and Lost Cause mythology was gaining traction. The statues were inherently political, indeed propaganda, from the beginning.

They were meant to drive home the message that the South was not dead -- that the ideals fought for in the Civil War were still alive in the hearts of many. And those ideals include deep-seated racism that views people as property.

So with the monuments' historical authenticity in question, we're left with artistic considerations. Obviously the artistry varies widely, but some of the monuments are impressive bronze statues by noteworthy sculptors. Well, the best place for controversial art is in a museum, where it can be placed in context and not forced upon people who don't want to see it -- people who justifiably feel pain, and a dark shadow of fear, when they encounter it. I've come to believe that New Orleans, which took down its Confederate monuments and (last I heard) plans to put them in a museum, has it right. Confederate statues should be removed from public display and put behind walls, where their true history can be made clear to people who choose to see them.

The best analogy I can think of here is Adolph Hitler. There are no Hitler statues in Germany, as far as I know, but there are surely Nazi artifacts in museums all over the world. And that's where they belong -- in a repository for dead artifacts of a dead past.

What I still struggle with is how monumental (no pun intended) this task will be. The South is positively stuffed with Confederate statues. There's one in every town, practically. In fact, many of the towns and counties themselves -- Jeff Davis County in Georgia, and Lee County in Mississippi, to name two just off the top of my head -- are named for Confederate leaders. Should they all be renamed?

What about the largest Confederate monument of all, Stone Mountain in Georgia? It's the South's own Mount Rushmore, with Lee, Davis and Jackson carved into a mountainside. What the heck do we do with that? (It's interesting to note that the U.S. Postal Service put out a stamp featuring Stone Mountain as recently as 1970!)

So, yes, it's a fraught topic. I'm still mulling it over. But it's time to remove the monuments from public squares and put them somewhere where they can be fully explained to viewers -- and by this I largely mean white viewers, because let's face it, we're the ones who really need to learn why their history is tainted and painful. Putting them behind walls drives home that they are elements of the past. They do not, and cannot, represent modern American thought, even in the South.


  1. A thoughtful and interesting post. The museum solution does seem wisest.

    It is of course easy to obliterate statues. Less easy to obliterate the deep set feelings that course through people's veins.

  2. I just don't know anything any more, Steve. I don't. And as you point out, trying to rid the south of any and all tributes to the Confederacy is an overwhelming task. Does that mean we shouldn't take it on? See- I don't know.
    The roots of racism and slavery are so deeply entwined in the very essence of our country (and not just the south) that it seems impossible to uproot them all.
    Even the men who wrote our constitution owned slaves. I mean- this is just the truth. The so-called Fathers of our Country OWNED OTHER HUMAN BEINGS. Washington, DC itself is named for the first president of the United States. Who was a slave-owner.
    We can't erase our history. That is not only impossible but unwise. What happened happened and we should learn from it.
    I guess the museum idea is the best. But as you say- Stone Mountain. Do we blow that up?
    Hell if I know.
    I don't know shit and I'm not big enough or smart enough to begin to know what the right thing to do is. I'm not sure there IS a right thing.

  3. if you do not know slavery is wrong by now...you are an idiot. people just want to raise hell..they get a rush out of destruction!
    it is plain and simple to me.

  4. Sometimes history leaves us with very thorny problems and there are limited solutions. It's a lose -lose situation. Here, we have some controversy over aboriginal names of places. Aboriginals had names for places long before europeans got here.

  5. Thanks Steve,

    When I read your blog yesterday, what you write today was my immediate thought. There is some fear that any museum with Civil War memorabilia inside will become a shrine for those that hate and fear and try to gain traction simply because of the pigmentation in their skin. But I guess that can't be avoided. I pray for the day we meet Sylvester McMonkey McBean with his Black on Black off machine. He won't make a penny off me, but I think he will become a very wealthy, “Fix-It-Up Chappie.” (See Wicki, Sneetches).


  6. I like the idea of putting the statues in museums. It is a way of understanding and preserving the past while recognizing it as a time that is long gone. Although, I have noticed for most of my life that we never really stopped the undercurrents and ideology of the Civil War. So, how to proceed? I have no idea.

  7. I think leaving these stupid things in place, where they can tarnish and erode and be weathered by the elements, be peed on by the homeless and defecated on by a thousand pigeons is exactly where they belong. I think removing them dilutes the importance of the tragic history of the places in which they were installed. Town squares where civil rights conflicts have erupted over the ages are symbolically important because of the importance and necessity of those conflicts, and not because of a the presence or absence of a blind and mute and brainless statue. We honor these figures with an importance that they do not deserve by even discussing the need to relocate them to any future where they can be preserved.

    Their 'appropriate context' is to decay right where they stand.

  8. A very thoughtful post today. I've had the same thoughts about trying to put these remnants of the past in proper context. I heard a history professor interviewed on PBS last night and he talked about how the history of the civil war has been altered over the years. He said many people don't believe that the war was about slavery. They think it was a war about big government telling people how to live their lives.
    I'm not sure what the right move is. I'm not sure there is one.

  9. My husband and I were discussing this after your previous post, Steve; as I said in my comment there, we are having similar issues with statues and place names here that don't take into account any founding groups except the white Europeans. We had come to the same conclusion as you have. History is not taught just through books. And it is vital to know history.

  10. In Hungary, after they gained freedom from Russia, they took all the hideous Russian statues out, away from the city. It's a difficult place to get to if you don't have a car. As you say, the Civil War statues went up during the period when African Americans were being hanged, beaten and worse. That's what they remember when viewing a statue. If they want them gone, I think their desires trump anything the white people have to say on the subject.
    Here is the sculpture park in Hungary. It's worth visiting if ever in the area.


  11. Well, you brought up the hitler analogy. I've been to a few museums where such artifacts are displayed. However, and here's the rub, always in context, e.g. the Jewish Museums in Berlin, Frankfurt, Vienna, various history museums in Europe, even one in India and so on.
    In context means with appropriate inscriptions, witness reports, historic notes on background, effects, and never ever leaving any space for doubt or glorification.

  12. I agree with YP a reflective post!
    The past should be left in the past...statues and all..... They were a a product of tbe time , you cannot put modern day sensibilities on past actions

  13. Okay. What about the misguided souls who "worship at the feet" of such symbols of hatred, suppression and oppression? There are those who are outraged by the Yasukuni Shrine, a place that's home to the souls of Japan's war dead. Their "souls," yet many see it as a tribute to leaders who committed atrocious war crimes. Hitler's home has been "repurposed" because some see it as a pilgrimage site. There was a story in yesterday's news about an American who was beaten by Germans because he did a salute to Hitler. The good German citizens aren't having it.

    Any symbols that foster hatred and violence, enslavement, or deny basic human rights for anyone should not be tolerated or glorified. If Americans have not learned anything from their past and present shame, then no statue or mountain will change that. Perhaps a visit to the new museum that teaches the results of racism, bigotry, suppression and oppression will go a long way to healing and educating the ignorant. We seem to repeat our worst acts history. Every story about Hiroshima still makes me ill. Showing photos of the bombs that were dropped on innocent Japanese hurts me, and others like me, just as much as it has to hurt their descendants. When will there be healing?

    I remember the pomp and circumstance that preceded the removal of the hanging tree on the courthouse grounds in our hometown. The poor tree hadn't hanged anyone. It's the town James Byrd was murdered by three young men who believed in white supremacy.

    The very idea of white supremacy . . . The rally at college campus here in Texas was cancelled, thank God, because there would have been more harm and bloodshed than warrants such ignorance and baiting. Our decent young people learned that such evil has no place in today's society, or perhaps this is true only in Texas. Surely they learned such values without seeing statues and memorials to hatred. Perhaps these children read, and learn, and have friends from other cultures, and as a result know how it feels to be hated, because of your skin color, your sexual identity, your accent, your religious beliefs . . . They are the descendants of people who marched and fought for civil right for EVERYONE. They will be tomorrow's leaders. They make us proud.

    It's easy to talk about ideals unless you've walked a mile in the shoes of African Americans, Jews, Mexicans, and anyone else who has been denied value as human beings because others saw them as less than.

    Now. I will read the comments that came before mine, to see if . . . No. I cannot un-live what I know.

  14. Here's a wee bit more light for the shadow that borders on total darkness: http://ellenshead.blogspot.com


  15. I just saw a post on Facebook that made me think of this post. It said, "Taking down Confederate monuments is not erasing history-- it's declaring that some parts of history belong in a museum, not on a pedestal."

  16. the statues could be melted and recycled - Melted the way Jewish teeth , wedding rings, anything of gold or silver were, melted the way black churches and homes have been, melted is where they belong- we do not need a damned statue to tell us our history, we know it, and there is so much shame.

  17. YP: God knows, if there were a way to obliterate hate, we'd all be much better off.

    Ms Moon: I agree that we cannot erase history. Nor SHOULD we. Yeah, Stone Mountain is a big problem. I honestly have no idea what to do about that. I believe there have been efforts to get it removed it, but...how?

    Vivian: I think that's true. Young men, especially, have a lot of energy that -- if not directed toward something productive -- seems to lead them into mischief. Crime and war and strife of all types is overwhelmingly a male pursuit!

    Red: Yeah, the aboriginal issues in Canada are interestingly similar -- and of course the United States has lingering issues with its Native American populations as well. Do we start removing/renaming references to our Indian-fighting forefathers (Andrew Jackson, for example) too? This could go on and on and on.

    TJ: Okay, I had to look up "Sneetches" to see what the heck you were talking about. How did I miss this during my childhood??

    Robin: Yeah, that's the scary thing. We're still fighting the Civil War in so many ways. It's astonishing to me that some people can't put it behind them. I wish we'd stop fracturing ourselves into smaller and smaller groups for the purposes of identity politics. The "Southern" identity is a falsehood, especially in this day and age, when so much of the South has been resettled by people from elsewhere.

    Utahdog: The problem is, they're not collapsing and rotting and deteriorating. They're well cared for and in places of prominence, at least in many cities. If we want to acknowledge the Civil Rights history in these public locales, surely we can come up with a better statue than Robert E. Lee?

    Sharon: It's a common assertion in the South that the war was about "State's Rights," which essentially means against a strong federal government -- and not about slavery. Of course it's obfuscation.

    Jenny-O: It IS vital to know history, which is why we cannot erase it, even if it's painful.

    Allison: I think that is a brilliant idea. It's essentially a museum, albeit an outdoor one. And this is exactly what I'm talking about -- some of those Soviet statues have some artistic merit, even if they're ugly and not particularly Hungarian, so it's good they've been set aside somewhere and preserved. That Cubist statue of Marx and Engels? Wacky!

    Sabine: Exactly! Context is VITAL. And it's what none of those monuments have now.

    John: Wasn't is Faulkner who said, "The past is never dead. It's not even past." And he was a Southerner -- he should know!

    Limner: I don't think we're disagreeing, are we? Or do you simply want all the monuments destroyed?

    Robin (again): Exactly!

    Linda Sue: See, that's exactly what I DON'T want. I don't want us simply destroying them. First of all, as I said, they have value (some of them) as artworks, just like the Soviet art in Hungary that Allison spoke of above. They can also be important teaching tools about a period of time, in the early 1900s, when Southern imagery was in resurgence. It may be helpful to someday show future generations that the Civil War wasn't decisively won at a single point in history, but was slowly unraveled over a period of decades -- even centuries! (Hopefully we'll be looking at it as a past phenomenon someday.) And I don't think we want to emulate the Nazis or the white supremacists in their attempts to erase the subjects of their hatred, do we?

  18. Not an attempt to erase history, that can not be done unless all books and tales and stories are destroyed. The Statues are not artistic, they carry no AWE , they are just larger than life sized men standing - cold dead metal in a menacing war- like way. And they are white guys.
    Sentimentality holds no water. And white folks must try harder! Our tolerance and first amendment "rights" have been skewed and bastardized as has the right to bear arms. We have broken this nation stretching the rules into manipulation rather than adhering to what is beneficial for all. We white folks are bastards of this land. Where are the statues of the Chickasaw, the Cherokee, the Sioux? And what of the shame of the act of 1830? Statues not needed to remind us of white thievery and horror- which has been glorified for the sake of white power, history retold a million times in our school system...lies fed to the superior race...

  19. as you learned, those monuments were erected to tell blacks that in the eyes of the south, they were still slaves. why should we continue to have statues and monuments that honor traitors? because that's what these generals were. they pledged their loyalty to the US and then declared war on it. put them in a museum where they belong and stop honoring traitors. btw, I was born in Texas, have deep roots here, have forebears that owned slaves, have forebears that fought on both sides but I have never been a supporter of the confederacy and what it stood for.

  20. And as any artefact relating to hitler exhibited in a museum is in fact a holocaust memorial one way or another, every one of these statues should/could/must be a memorial to the suffering of slaves.
    Putting history in context is a must in a civil society.

  21. I've come to this post a little late in the day but thanks, once again, for another thoughtful, measured comment on this situation.
    I might just borrow a theme from your post and write something myself. Do not be alarmed - the chance of it ever making it to the publish button is at very long odds at the moment.