The pace of bad news out of the Trump Administration is such that more bad news has arrived well before I’ve had the chance to process the last injustice. This new reality takes its toll, but it’s not an excuse for failure to truly think about what is going on and why it matters. To that end, I’ve been thinking about monuments.
|New York State Monument in Gettysburg National Cemetery|
As we engage in a national debate about Confederate monuments and what to do about them, I am reminded that it’s not just the existence of monuments, it’s whose achievements we choose to honor. And even when we honor achievements, it may very well be that we are marking contributions that did not make our nation a better place. We have two obligations here: to understand our history in its complexity and to leave the world better than we found. Doing both means thinking clearly about who - and what - we honor. This doesn’t have to be difficult if a handful of key questions guide our thinking. As discussion of monument removal emerges, consider the following questions:
1. What is the primary accomplishment of the person being praised? The answer to this question alone will insist on the removal of nearly every Confederate memorial. Consider Jefferson Davis. He was a senator from Mississippi, not a particularly thoughtful one, though he was respected and influential in his time. But his primary accomplishment is as president of the Confederacy, a doomed government founded upon the principal that blacks were inferior to whites and deserved to be enslaved. That is who Jeff Davis is and we do not need monuments to this achievement. We should preserve his plantation and mark his words and works; he should certainly have a headstone at his grave. But we don’t need public monuments of Jefferson Davis.
2. When was the monument erected? Was it placed in the immediate aftermath of an event in which the person it praises participated? Or is it marking those accomplishments 20, 30, 50 or more years later, when erecting such a monument is a dog whistle for racist whites and a not-so-subtle reminder to subjugated groups that they should stay in their place? Monuments to Confederate generals erected in the 1880s, as Jim Crow laws were being made and strengthened or in the 1890s, after the Supreme Court enshrined the unjust principle of separate but equal in Please v. Ferguson are involved in a not-so-subtle message. Those built the 1920s, in Southern states that forbid blacks to leave, forcing the Great Migration to occur in fear and secrecy are not marking achievements, were erected to stoke fear. Monuments built in the 1950s after Brown v. Board of Education ruled that separate is inherently unequal were meant to challenge the rule of law and subjugate people of color. The majority of Confederate memorials were erected in a time different from the event or person they purport to honor. These “monuments” were not-so-subtle reminders that blacks were and would remain unequal. The context matters.
3. Where is the monument erected? Is the site itself a place where an important historical event occurred? Or is the monument making a mark on a place known for something all together different? If a tree was used to lynch African Americans, a monument to Nathan Bedford Forrest at such a site has a specific message. It’s not a good one.
4. Consider who is there now. At minimum, we should be uncomfortable with the notion of children filing into school named after a segregationist. That is no message for any child and to a child of color it is alienating. Is there any reason for a highway to be named after a Confederate general? What message to do we send about our society when this history is marked in a tone that implies honor?
The answer to these questions can guide both the building and removal of monuments. In all instances, we must be sure to mark a complete history of our past. Founders like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison pass scrutiny and we can build monuments to them. As always, we must tell the whole of their story; the good and the troubling. Folks like Robert E. Lee or Stonewall Jackson will be in the cross-hairs; monuments to them should likely be removed and a more complete contextualized history marked. Exceptions might be made for monuments erected in the years immediately after the Civil War; the Gettysburg battlefield is a good example. There are figures who occupy some awkward territory. Woodrow Wilson comes to mind. He did lead the nation through WWI and provided a philosophical foundation for the idea of the League of Nations. These are important accomplishments. At the same time, Wilson was an unapologetic racist who subjugated segregated armed forces; he stood in the way of women’s suffrage. I’ve a mixed mind about Wilson; at the least, I wouldn’t build new monuments to him.
Our past is real and present in our lives today. We must understand it in all of its complexities. Monuments bear a big responsibility in this process and should receive careful consideration They must mark who we are and help lead us toward the nation we want to become. They are not the only history we have and shouldn’t be the only way in which we understand our selves and our past. Where they exist they should be of people, places, and accomplishments that are worth our praise because these people made us better.