First off, let’s be clear. A relatively small group of people who identify with The Birth of a Nation a bit too much shouldn’t be taken too seriously. Carrying Wal-Mart tiki-torches doesn’t boost their credibility, either. (Though at least their citronella-fueled protest was sure to be conspicuously bug-free. You can’t be too safe about West Nile Virus, after all, even if it means carrying Chinese-made goods.)
Neither should we worry too much about the idiocy of a bunch of wanna-be anti-globalists taking issue with the democratic decisions of a very local populace– particularly as many of them don’t even live there. Still, if anyone was inclined to listen to the very consistent and rational argument of these intellectual giants, chanting “Russia is our friend!” probably ruined that moment, anyway.
If anything, the protest indicates just how appropriate the removal of some of these monuments is. It is a reminder that the racial undercurrents that fueled Dylan Roof are still very much in play in America, and that placating those who feel the same way as he did is the wrong approach to what remains a simmering, potentially explosive problem.
All credit is due to Charlottesville’s mayor, Mike Signor. In the face of anti-semitic taunts, ignorant name-calling (who calls someone a Bolshevik in 2017?), and at least one death threat, he has stood up for the will of his electorate. So too should those who responded with calls for peace and inclusion be lauded. The best defense against ignorance is the courageous application of reason.
All of this is not to say that the issues in play here are cut and dry. Expressions of memorial are rarely uncontentious, and indiscriminate white-washing isn’t the answer, either. In the capital of our nation, after all, two massive monuments stand in celebration of slaveholders, and the top elected official in the country lives in a house built by slaves. One of the men so celebrated in Washington is endlessly feted in Charlottesville, in fact. Ask alumni if they think his name should come off the floor of the basketball court (where black men and women play every season) and see what they say. These are not easy things to reconcile.
Having lived in the South, traveled extensively in the South, and counting Southerners of varying racial, religious, and political identities as friends, I can say that reconciliation of the effects of the Civil War is ongoing and incredibly complicated. If anything, those who think the answers are easy are only exacerbating the problem.
The Confederate flag is the easy part. It’s a symbol that has come to represent the worst of the South’s heritage, and removing it from public buildings is a no-brainer concession to a populace that– the fringes excluded– is progressing away from the darkness (however fitfully it may be doing so). No one flies the “Grand Union” flag anymore– even on Independence Day– and that doesn’t mean they don’t respect the heritage of those early, desperate years of the Revolution.
The bigger problem is that Southerners live inside a vast monument to their greatest failure, and are asked on an almost-daily basis to determine how to be both American and a people descended from a failed attempt to be their own version of American. They drive past Confederate cemeteries. They confront Confederate memorials. They are subject to an endless sequence of battle markers and historical commemorations. Often they live on or near battlefields, with artifacts all about them (in Chattanooga, some people have cannons in their front yards). And this does not even encompass the racial and social implications the conflict continues to have– the history of which is in some instances similarly commemorated, and in any case persistently referenced (and for white Southerners, often as evidence of their continued backwardness).
In truth, it’s not something that I completely understand, much as I have tried. The chapter I wrote about Shiloh is perhaps best indicative of this. While I feel it is one of the best and most insightful chapters in the book, still my notions remain vague and un-centered, for as a Northerner there are things about the South that I can never hope to fully grasp. For one, there is generational meaning encoded in the very land of the Confederate South, and turning one’s back on it is tantamount to a form of familial treason. It is a peculiar mandate to be both proud and ashamed of one’s heritage depending upon the principle from which that mandate arises, and the more someone from a different part of the world demands that you renunciate your past, the more likely you will be to hold doggedly to it.
The problem is that some of these monuments are not only commemorative of a past time, but celebratory of the aspects of that time that constitute the greatest stains upon the South’s history (and that of America, in general). And often their juxtapositions are highly problematic.
The best example of this that I came across during my travels was in Montgomery, Alabama, where I sat in on a a service at the Dexter Avenue King Memorial Church and Parsonage. This church– the church where Martin Luther King, Jr. preached– is conspicuously located down the hill from the enormous, uniformly white, Greek Revival State Capitol Building. That building– which very much resembles an antebellum mansion– is across the street from the Confederacy’s first White House (Jefferson Davis was sworn in on the steps of the Capitol, and authorized the bombardment of Fort Sumter from the house). But even more significant is the 88-foot tall Confederate monument that still stands on the grounds of the Capitol. On it an inscription reads “Dedicated to the knightliest of the knightly race who since the days of old/ Have kept the lamp of chivalry alight in the hearts of cold.” It is a conspicuous declaration of the continued vibrancy of social caste in the South. As I wrote in the chapter concerning my visit, “If anyone were to deny the representational connections between the charged sermons King gave in the small church and the virulent defenses of slavery and racial oppression made in the buildings looming atop the hill, it would only be through a stubborn unwillingness to simply look around.”
It doesn’t take an expertise in plantation mythology to recognize the inappropriateness of such a commemoration in a country that has disavowed itself of such principles. And indeed, most white Southerners I know would agree that in the very least the inscription is offensive, and not reflective of the way they feel about their culture and their communities. And yet not only does it still stand, but a protest was organized in 2015 when the decision was made to remove Confederate flags from it. All in sight of Dr. King’s humble church.
Though I’ve spent a good deal of time in Charlottesville, I am not specifically familiar with the monuments to Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson that are at the heart of this newest controversy. Neither do I know the particulars of the arguments for and against their removal. But what I do know is that the discussion is a relevant one, and not reducible to a fight between blacks and whites, blackness and whiteness. In the least, if a populace wants to divorce itself of dedications to slaveholders who chose to fight for the dissolution of the country in which they now live, that hardly seems to me like cause for a fight. And if it is collectively decided that other monuments aren’t harming anyone, aren’t stoking racial hatred, and aren’t demeaning a portion of the population, so be it. Meaning may be generated internally, but it is nominated externally. And community should always be stronger than symbol.