Confederate memorials have no place in American society. Good riddance
Under the cover of darkness early Monday morning, workers in Louisiana took down the first of four confederate memorials in New Orleans, which city officials had decided to remove in 2015, shortly after the Charleston shootings. Good riddance.
It was fitting that the workers wore black, bulletproof clothing, donned masks which hid their identities, and were protected by police snipers. Their outfits speak to the history of racial violence these monuments evoke and idealize, a history propagated by Ku Klux Klan members who wore white clothing and masks to hide their identities (often in collusion with the police).
The confederacy was an attempt to hold onto a way of life made possible by chattel slavery – and that violent way of life was soaked in the blood from the enslavement, murder and rape of African Americans.
Removing these monuments raises no issue of “erasing history,” as some have charged. The monument taken down this week, originally inscribed in dedication to “white supremacy in the South,” was built in 1891. It was a monument to how, as WEB Du Bois wrote in Black Reconstruction in America, “the slave went free; stood a brief moment in the sun; then moved back into slavery.”
For too long, US society has stood for monuments erected on government property to the confederacy, its losing war and its genocidal values because the confederacy battled for white supremacy and its hagiography is meant to intimidate black people. Now, after a mass murder in Charleston, we as a nation are finally confronting this.
But we’re still treating these relics of the confederacy with an absurd amount of care. When the confederate flag was taken down in South Carolina, it was done with such pomp and circumstance it was like the thing was being given a state funeral. It ought to be have been taken down without ceremony in the middle of the night as the New Orleans monument was. And the monument is not being destroyed, but will reportedly be taken to “a place where they can be put in historical context.”
As an historian myself, I am mindful of preserving the history of the country, no matter how awful, violent and racist it is. But I am also mindful that the performance of preserving remnants of the confederacy in such a showy manner highlights a painful gap in our society.
This country will lovingly care for symbols of racial violence in a way it has never has cared for the bodies of raped black women, of whipped black men of black families bred and torn apart under enslavement.
US governments will spend money preserving these confederate monuments, demonstrating the kind of care that we never showed to the bodies consumed by the confederacy (and their descendants). And America won’t find money to even talk about reparations for black people – a project which would really keep us from erasing our economic and cultural history – but we will easily find money to preserve Confederate monuments.
These monuments are coming down just as a kind of cold-Civil War 2.0 is unfolding in the nation. The geographic boundaries of our present civil war are not as explicit as when the Mason-Dixon line demarcated freedom or bondage for enslaved black people.
But as states take such different stances on matters of freedom – as “blue” states like California affirm their commitment to protecting our climate and retain former Attorney General Eric Holder to defend its interests against the Trump administration, and as “red” states like Texas and North Carolina try to deny LGBT rights and make it ever harder for women to obtain abortions – it’s like a slow moving civil war, as different states regulate race, sexuality and citizenship so differently.
And in federal matters, the union’s position has perhaps flipped. Consider that as some cities take on “sanctuary status” to protect immigrants, coming down hard on them is Attorney General Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III – a man who is named for Confederate President Jefferson Davis (whose statue is one of the three still to come down in New Orleans).
The moment of this monument coming down is not a call for collective amnesia. Rather, it marks how we need to critically study American history more – by reading more Du Bois, and studying more books like Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, more Teen Vogue articles on Andrew Jackson and studying more films like Ava DuVernay’s The 13th.
But let’s not, in a misguided fashion, think that becoming most educated about our history is contingent upon monuments built to an illegitimate government decades after the Civil War – and that glorify the most violently racist aspects of our American story.