It’s amazing to be alive at the moment of the tipping point for a social movement: For my lifetime, they already include the fall of the Berlin Wall, the end of apartheid in South Africa, Arab Spring, the extension of legal rights for women and for same-sex unions among many others.
What all of these have in common is that they happened well before the formal governing entity signaled that it was ready for the change or even in some cases, before the solid majority had decided to back the change.
All were hard-fought and seemed destined to fail at many points in their campaign. All had active opposition.
The removal of statues of Confederate leaders from public space is another tipping point in a country that is heading toward a time when whites will be a minority (by 2043).
The affronted use mockery (“Why don’t we remove all traces of Washington? HE owned slaves! Where will this end?”) or condescending treatises on what they view as “the real history”, as understood through a lifetime of racist schoolbooks and likeminded family members (“The war was about states rights and not about slavery, duh.”)
To me, the arguments stated above mask the bigger truth: The public lionization of the Confederate past of the South is a barrier to working together for the future and signals to people of color that whiteness is a privilege earned, when it is not. I don’t care what version or scope of history you subscribe to, although I may pity you; have a statue of Lee in your backyard, but holding on the “Lost Cause” narrative in public places is a recipe for the continuing disintegration of our region. It also masks the true vibrancy of the South: that it is based on a multi-cultural, multi-generational belief in place, extreme socialization and culture handed down from person to person.
I wish we had the ability and forethought as a people to have created realistic evidence of the world of slavery and the brutality of the Civil War as Eisenhower ordered to be done with the concentration camps after WW2, but we did not. Instead we have inherited this soft and “heroic” narrative that does not truly represent the history of that ugly time.
Statues of those who brought a civil war to defend a system that allowed people to be sold as chattel should not be kept in public spaces.
Keep all of the statues and throw some Mardi Gras beads on em if you’d like, but put them in the Custom House or another place to properly frame their history as those who ignored the opportunity to expand human rights for their neighbors, along with information on when the statues were commissioned and by whom.
And thank you to Isabel Wilkerson, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author of “The Warmth Of Other Suns:The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration” for writing this piece in the NYT about how symbols do help to define their time:
With the lowering of the Confederate flag in the state that was the first to secede and where the first shots were fired, could we now be at the start of a true and more meaningful reconstruction? It would require courage to relinquish the false comfort of embedded racial mythologies and to open our minds to a more complete history of how we got here. It would require a generosity of spirit to see ourselves in the continued suffering of a people stigmatized since their arrival on these shores and to recognize how the unspoken hierarchies we have inherited play out in the current day and hold us back as a country.
“Any time, any time while I was a slave, if one minute’s freedom had been offered to me, and I had been told I must die at the end of that minute, I would have taken it—just to stand one minute on God’s airth [sic] a free woman— I would.” — Elizabeth Mumbet Freeman secured her freedom in a precedent setting court case on 8/22/1781.