Memorials to America’s slave society must go for a simple yet overlooked fact: they are redundant
History: A Work In Progress
Upon my first visit to France, I was awestruck by everything I saw — the art, the architecture — and, as much if not more, by what I didn’t see: numerous palaces, shrines and monasteries that were razed during different stages of the French Revolution.
In 1871, members of the Paris Commune finished the handiwork started by the Jacobins and sans-culottes 80 years earlier: the Communards burned to the ground the Tuileries Palace, the Hôtel de Ville, and a number of other historical sites and monuments. While the Hôtel de Ville was rebuilt to its original specs, many of the sites were not.
The same was true in the United Kingdom: what isn’t there is as telling as what is. There is only grass — or ruins or parking lots — where once stood the architecture of what Simon Schama refers to as “Catholic England:” churches and monasteries that were despoiled and destroyed by newly minted Protestants during the English Reformation.
Gothic minsters and cathedrals that were spared during the first wave of reformation received further “cleansing” by Puritans in the English Civil War, which resulted in the wholesale destruction of stained glass, statuary, reliquaries, altar crosses…and Catholics, including those who were sympathetic to them, such as King Charles I.
Pilgrims who made the journey to Canterbury before the reign of Henry VIII could kneel before the shrine of Thomas à Becket and meditate on his martyrdom in 1140 at the hands of Henry II’s obsequious barons; now tourists stand before an empty space that used to house his wood and glass casket, and contemplate his other martyrdom — the destruction of his shrine in 1538 by the church-wreckers of that other Henry.
Besides the conspicuous absence of the tomb itself, a place marked by a candle now, are equally striking depressions in the cathedral’s stone floor that tell us today exactly where all those pilgrims kneeled for nearly 400 years before Becket was martyred a second time.
Reformationists, iconoclasts and revolutionaries of all ilks each took their turn, reimagining the respective futures of their respective countries by erasing whole chapters of their respective pasts.
While they succeeded in destroying with extreme prejudice oppressive symbols of Monarchy and feudalism and the Church of Rome, they couldn’t destroy their absence, which is part of the story now, too.
The Endless Prologue
History is written not in stone or in books.
It is a story written on a palimpsest, one that is wiped clean and rewritten by successive generations who revise or simply cut out the bad parts that were not “bad” by the social and political norms of bygone eras, though tyranny, slavery, oppression in any form were and will forever remain intrinsically evil.
In other words, history is a working draft, one that will never be finished, not until history is finished off by us, or we’re finished off by history.
The draft is being edited again.
The monuments of the Confederacy — Confederate politicians, Confederate generals, Confederate soldiers — are being defaced, dismantled, destroyed. A rather fashionable question at the moment among members of reference groups that do not include people of color is: should we be destroying monuments that are, for good or for ill, part of our American heritage?
The better question is, why were they built in the first place?
“Most of the people who were involved in erecting [Confederate] monuments were not necessarily erecting a monument to the past…but were rather erecting them toward a white supremacist future,” said Jane Dailey, an associate professor of history at the University of Chicago in an NPR article, “Confederate Statues Were Built To Further A ‘White Supremacist Future’”
From the day the last Federal troops were withdrawn from Southern states in 1877 — manifest admission of the failure of Reconstruction as President Abraham Lincoln dreamed it and as President Ulysses S. Grant attempted to realize it — right up until this moment, a sizable part of this nation’s history was being written and controlled by the losers. That is, those who served the Confederate States of America during the Civil War, or who served as its apologists afterward.
In one sense, these monuments were revisionist window dressing attempting to conceal the fact that Southern leaders were traitors in the worst of causes. Their real purpose, however, was to make it clear that though the Confederacy had lost, though the leaders had died, the socio-political mechanisms of a reformed, not abolished, slave society were still in place.
“These statues were meant to create a legitimate garb for white supremacy,” James Grossman, the executive director of the American Historical Association. “Why would you put a statue of Robert E. Lee or Stonewall Jackson in 1948 in Baltimore?”
These aren’t passively wistful expressions of nostalgia for the Old South; or gifts of reconciliation for those eleven prodigal stars in our nation’s flag that had returned to the constellation of the Union to twinkle again upon a field of Freedom Blue. These were bronzed muscle: ever watchful, never sleeping and very public guardians of the values of the Confederacy which, try as the most slippery revisionists might, cannot be divorced from the values of white supremacy.
As Dailey notes, these statues were almost always strategically placed “near government buildings, and especially in front of courthouses [as] a ‘power play’ meant to intimidate those looking to come to the ‘seat of justice or the seat of the law.’”
Their very existence, then, was a deviation from an age old norm: the expectation that the victors, not the losers, write the history.
A World of Empty Plinths
There is a sort of fascinating coexistence occurring in Europe.
After a 1,000-year history of revolutions, restorations, and five different Republics (and counting), France has managed to preserve — even come to revere — memorials to royalists, imperialists and revolutionaries, all of whom represent different voices in the great dialectic that drives progress and husbands social change.
The first was a divinely appointed and most Catholic monarch known as much for the unrivaled splendor and length of his reign as his womanizing and incurable religious bigotry. The second was an agnostic, self-made, self-anointed Corsican-born emperor of kings who waged total war against Europe, killing between 3,250,000 to 6,500,000 people simply because he did not have the character for peace. The third was a rabidly atheistic, vehemently anti-clerical Radical Republican turned Radical Socialist.
A Sun King, a Corsican “fiend” and a godless Tiger of France, all within a tourist’s mile of one another.
As social norms change, so, too, change the ideas of who and what we should honor with a public memorial or monument — with this the French do not disagree.
However, rather than erase visible representations of history simply because they don’t square with the present beliefs and expectations among an increasingly diverse groups of actors, the French government has chosen another path: create an entirely new context for the physical evidence of slavery, for example, that was a part of the country’s history, the New York Times reports.
For a time, the British had quietly reconciled the public displays of monuments to those who represented opposing religious and political norms; opposition which created some rather turbulent — and bloody — times for Great Britain.
Outside the House of Commons, one will see a rather famous regicide, Oliver Cromwell, the scourge of English Catholics and the murderous subjugator of Ireland, striking his best Lord Protector stance, warts and all — unnaturally close to a statue of King Richard I, The Lion Heart, which faces the entrance to the House of Lords. (To have a gander at the king whose head was separated from his body by Cromwell, one will need to trudge up Whitehall to view an equestrian statue of Charles I, hiding in plain sight in the long shadow of Nelson’s Column.)
Somehow, those nations have, over time, figured out how bronze instantiations of opposing ideologies — mortally opposing, tyrannical ideologies — can co-exist peacefully. Though as I write that co-existence is being challenged.
In England, anyway:
A statue of Edward Colston, a slave trader from the 17th century was recently knocked off his plinth and unceremoniously log-rolled into a river in Bristol. Further, protesters have let it be known that the once unimpeachable Winston Churchill was, in fact, a “racist” — he was, being, by his own admission, born of the class-based Victorian Age: code for one who holds beliefs in the supremacy of the white race.
And for that, not for his resistance to Herr Hitler and National Socialism, his imposing statue in Parliament Square was defaced during a Black Lives Matter protest in London.
Now, there’s an online petition to remove a statue of Gandhi in Leicester, because he was “a fascist, racist and sexual predator.”
Clearly, no matter how great or revered, any human who is hoisted above others and placed on a pedestal is not perfect, certainly not when we read history backward, from the present to the past. This fact alone is a rather convincing argument for a world of empty plinths.
In the case of Confederate monuments, however, they have been assailed and removed not because of the personal failings or even the sicknesses of those in whose image they were cast, but because of an idea represented by their very presence — an oppressive and inhuman idea that persisted long after a savage, four-year and failed effort to defend its legal basis.
When they are removed — crated and hauled away or rolled into the nearest harbor — they are transformed yet again through negation; a negation that becomes an act — and fact — of history.
We can deny their right to exist now — and deny future generations from contemplating the fact, shameful as it is, that they ever stood — as social norms shift and compel us to rethink their presence in the first place.
But we cannot hide their absence.
Ironically, what isn’t there can be far more eloquent, far more stirring than what is. If you stand before the spot where Becket’s shrine used to be, you will concur. In fact, Cato the Elder thought absence to be the greatest of human tributes: “I would much rather have men ask why I have no statue, than why I have one.”
But Absence, like its cousin Silence, is a declarative act with infinite interpretations — it can mean any number of things.
How, then, shall posterity know the correct one?
A New Canvas for New Art
While the removal of misbegotten statuary is certainly an answer, it is problematic for a couple of reasons.
For one, it reads like another form of superficial appeasement — it is far, far easier to remove a statue than to take real measures to end racism, though one may contend that dismantling the Lost Cause bronzes is a necessary step in undermining the superstructure that holds a still-racist system in place.
As of now, however, it is succeeding only in whipping up Lost Causers into a revenge-seeking frenzy, and giving those oxidizing losers — literally — a power that they have never known.
The other problem: When we erase the material evidence of slavery, we risk erasing, too, the tragic yet historical fact that slavery did exist in America.
It is not unlike watching a cinematic history of the United States that doesn’t include that bit about the Civil War: why it started, who fought it in it, and how it ended.
Or, more accurately, how it didn’t end.
By cleansing public spaces in an effort to present a falsified, aggressively redacted version of our past to future generations, we’re robbing posterity of a right to know — and see — that the values of slave-society continued long after they were supposedly snuffed out in a civil war that cost more than 600,000 lives.
Those statues, with the help of the necessary — and inevitable — revisionism, could be used to tell such a story now; and, as evidence, offer irrefutable proof of the South’s treason, which originated from a great and false truth that whites are superior to blacks — a “truth” upon which the Confederacy was built. And proof of our own government’s complicity in the perpetuation of the values of the Old South in the years after the war through Jim Crow.
Some activists, though, are going one better.
Whereas France is choosing to acknowledge and explain the symbols of its “ugly history” rather than tear them down, providing a much needed perspective on what was and how it became what is, a group of American protesters are changing the norms related to how the public engages with symbols of Confederacy. They’re using — not losing — all that bronzed propaganda as a canvas for contemporary artists who are creating a new genre of political art. I should write effective political art, something that the art critic Robert Hughes suggested would never be possible after Picasso’s Guernica.
Take what’s happening in Richmond, VA where they haven’t yet removed the statue of Robert E. Lee. Protesters have been using Lee, his horse, Traveller, and the plinth they share as a massive, sculpted scrim upon which new messages of racial justice are projected.
Like crucifixes soldered to the tops of Egyptian obelisks in Rome showing Christianity’s monotheistic triumph over polytheistic religions, a Black Lives Matter light show on the silhouette of one of the South’s most famous, certainly the most revered, slave holder is a triumph of another kind — a powerful, indeed, breathtaking social and political statement expressed in a strikingly visual way that would not be possible if Lee and Traveler were hidden away in a giant crate, like the Ark of the Covenant at the conclusion of Raiders of the Lost Ark.
This progressive light show is a kind of punishment for Lee, too: the times are changing again, and his frozen effigy must bear witness to — and participate in — the change, while all the children of the Lost Cause, those who have the eyes to see, and the ears to hear, contemplate the tragic and fatal error of his woefully misplaced pride.
It’s an imaginative and generative answer to the monument question, one that reads as a triumph over the “superficial appeasement” of immediate negation; a repurposing of one form of political art with another, more evolved form that has the force and the platform to show, not tell, the world that Lee’s march ended long ago, but the march of freedom goes on.
But will the light shows, and the inspired repurposing of other forms of Lost Cause art, continue when the news cycle — and the hashtags — change? Maybe, but it is doubtful that this kind of political art can sustain itself until real, measurable change occurs, beyond annihilating the symbology of racism, which is more expedient than annihilating racism itself.
The Living Monument
If one wants the last word in any human crisis, ask a poet.
That’s what was running through my mind as I read Caroline Randall Williams’ op-ed, “You Want a Confederate Monument? My Body Is a Confederate Monument.”
I’ve never, not in my lifetime, read anything quite like Ms. Williams’ piece in any daily or periodical.
“I have rape-colored skin,” it begins. “My light-brown blackness is a living testament to the rules, the practices, the causes of the Old South.
“If there are those who want to remember the legacy of the Confederacy, if they want monuments, well, then my body is a monument. My skin is a monument.”
Ms. Williams has done something extraordinary as she deftly makes an open/shut case of the monument question; she allows the reader to become her. One doesn’t merely feel what she feels as a “descendent of black women who were domestic servants and white men who raped their help.”
Hers becomes a lived experience.
She has discovered another, higher form of empathy, one I didn’t know existed until I read her piece; an empathy that goes beyond hearing and understanding the feelings of others. It’s a kind of empathy, if that’s even the word for it, where the feelings of others are felt as if the feelings are indeed our own.
What virtual reality does with a head-mounted display, Ms. Williams has done with the written word, helping us behold truths that her body “forces you to see.”
Her life, in her words, becomes ours — really and truly ours. But make no mistake: they are hers.
Selflessly she loans them to us, for approximately 940 words; long enough to make us see once and for all that the Confederate monument controversy is not controversial at all, and that there really is nothing more to argue.
They must go.
We must bid an overdue farewell to those bronzed and marble abominations of the Lost Cause for a reason that has escaped many of us: they’re redundant.
“I say the monuments of stone and metal, the monuments of cloth and wood, all the man-made monuments, must come down…I am quite literally made of the reasons to strip them of their laurels.”
Ms. Williams’ life is all the proof we need of the oppression, of the exploitation, of the trauma of this country’s “ugly history;” a trauma handed down from generation to generation to generation, like a cursed heirloom that cannot be so easily pawned off or crated away or tossed into a river.
She is not a scrim upon which artists can project new messages of justice and pride and tolerance; nor is she a bronzed figure that can be made over with a couple of cans of spray paint. She is a human being who is bearing the unbearable, and we must bear it with her because, whether we acknowledge it or not, her experience — and the experience of her ancestors — touches us.
That is the infectious and nefarious nature of trauma.
“Trauma affects not only those who were directly exposed to it, but also those around them,” writes Dr. Bessel van der Kolk in The Body Keeps the Score: Mind, Brain, and Body in the Transformation of Trauma.
“Traumatic experiences leave traces, whether on a large scale (on our histories and cultures) or close to home, on our families, with dark secrets being imperceptibly passed down through generations.”
Through this lens, her body — her life — is a national monument to a history of hatred and cruelty and betrayal; and, as important, to personal resilience and to the persistence of humanity.
We have no legitimate reason for those anachronistic and, frankly, treasonous bronzes so long as Ms. Williams and countless others with similar roots in the same dark, disturbing history of the United States walk among us.
Our role is not to gaze absently upon them as if traversing a public square like iPhone-in-hand tourists in search of the ultimate selfie. Our role is, first and foremost, to listen for these Confederate “monuments” speak, and they tell us the whole story.