Firstly, if you’re going to read anybody’s thoughts on the debate regarding the removal of Confederate statues, then leave this blog right now and read Caroline Randall Williams’s essay in the New York Times. It is the definitive piece on this issue.
Anyway, if you’re still here for some reason, I’ll continue.
In the past, I may have looked at this issue and responded, “Who cares? They’re just statues and they cost tens of millions of dollars annually to maintain. Just take them all down.”
But now, the newly-woke-but-still-groggy me knows that’s the “not racist” view of someone who is unaffected by this issue and thus chooses to ignore it.
Statues are more than just stone, concrete and medal. They’re emblems of how we wish to portray ourselves. We all choose our image carefully. How we present ourselves — be it the clothes we wear, the bumper stickers we put on our cars, tattoos, posters, Instagram photos — are all carefully orchestrated in large part to reflect how we wish to be perceived by others.
Statues are no exception.
Protestors are taking it upon themselves to do what lawmakers and the powers-that-be have failed to do: removing statues that recall a dark part of our history. And it’s not just here. A statue of a slave trader in England was recently discarded into a river, and in Belgium, a statue of King Leopold, whose legacy includes seizing and brutalizing the Congo, was removed by Belgian officials after it was vandalized.
There’s more than 1,000 Confederate statues remaining in the U.S. — glorifications of an era defined by violent oppression and bondage. And the plaques on these statues don’t talk about slavery. They usually even acknowledge the Civil War as the “War for State’s Rights.” Basically, they glorify these men as saints.
This is how we choose to be remembered?
A Facebook friend of mine — whom I was never actually friendly with in real life and whom I haven’t spoken to in more than 15 years — wrote recently that while he agreed with protestors rising up against police brutality, that he didn’t feel the need to protest until reports surfaced about people tearing down statues.
In other words, he values statues over people’s lives. (I would have de-friended him, but I simply unfollowed him because I can’t wait to see his reaction on Nov. 4 when Trump has lost the election.)
Removing a statue is not rewriting history. It’s reframing history. This country was built on the backs of the oppressed. If we want to truly tell our nation’s story, we need to know who those people were and hear their stories. If a state so badly wants to keep some of their less-problematic Confederate monuments, than adjust the plaque to let us know how he treated ALL people.
As for George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, yeah, they were our amongst our Founding Fathers, great. But they also owned slaves. I certainly never learned that in school. If somebody owned and oppressed other human beings, that’s usually one of the first things you learn about them.
If someone moved into the house next door and happened to own a person that they kept confined in their backyard, then I wouldn’t see my friends and tell them about my new neighbor by saying, “Yeah, he seems like a nice guy. He has a nice care, maintains his front yard nicely, likes to jog … oh, and he owns a human.” That’s detail number one.
We consider the Holocaust to be possibly the most evil act in human history, and everyone involved with it to be complicit, from Adolf Hitler, to the Gestapo, to the judges and administrators, to ordinary citizens who were members of the Nazi party and turned a blind eye to the whole thing.
Slavery, which lasted much, much longer, is not reflected upon in the same way. Thomas Jefferson wrote that “All men are created equal” knowing full well that those words would not apply to members of his own family. That’s cold.
And while it’s easy to retort that it’s unfair to judge the past through the moral lens of today, don’t forget that there were plenty of people living at that time who thought slavery was reprehensible.
Staues of presidents 1 and 3 should remain, but we certainly don’t need as many as there are now, and they should absolutely depict their full stories. And if people want to desecrate them, I’ll hand them the eggs.
And in place of these Confederate statues being removed, let’s idolize those who tell the better parts of our nation’s story: the abolitionists, those who fought for suffrage, those who dedicated their lives to helping others. Also, less white men. More women. More people of color. More Indegenous.
It’s not rewriting history.
For the first time, it’s telling our whole history.