SONJAY SINGH, PUSHING FORWARD
I’ve always found it difficult to condemn those that identify themselves as the sons and daughters of the antebellum South. It is obvious that the Confederate way of life was built on the propagation of the greatest evil to ever take place on the American continent, and there can be no excuse for a war waged to continue the atrocities of slavery. But still, it is not as though our own modern American way of life is unassailable—from silicon chips pieced together through the sweat of the indentured, to garments woven by children in sweatshops, to produce plucked by the disenfranchised and voiceless, there are a thousand evils that enable the lives of comfort that we lead. If a foreign army rolled through our cities, burned our factories and razed our farms, I think that we would stand in the shells of our burned-out cities, telling stories of iPods, hashtags, Air Jordans, and selfie sticks over oil drum fires, reminiscing for a world with little regard for the subjugation it required. It is unreasonable to claim that nostalgia and kinship can only be extended towards memories free of sin – there is no legacy unblemished by wrongdoing. But neither can we become like the wretched who descended on Charlottesville, spewing hatred and recalling the atrocities of the past with pride. Rather, we must separate remembrance from celebration. We cannot forget the past, but we also cannot endorse it through statuary honor.
It is on these grounds that I object to the existence of Confederate monuments on American soil. There is a class of historical artifact that we can consider solely about the preservation of memory. Museum exhibits that attempt to holistically explain historical phenomena fall within this category, as do textbooks (with some exceptions), and historical reenactments. However, statues erected in public places are primarily commemorative. Like limited-print coins, Independence Day parades, or Washington monuments, a public statue is installed in celebration of an aspect of our communal history, not mere recollection of it. As a country, we cannot tolerate the existence of memorials to the Confederacy. It would be perverse to celebrate a nation whose primary purpose was to wage war in furtherance of chattel slavery. Confederate statues can and should be housed in museums, and stories of the Confederacy recalled in history books. Aspects of the antebellum South can be memorialized with recognition to the cruelty that they embraced. But, when speaking of the Confederate government, the United States must do so with solemnity, not reverence.
Perhaps it is recognition of this that leads supporters of these monuments to argue that some prominent Confederates, chiefly Robert E. Lee, deserve to be remembered not for their actions as part of the rebel army, but for their service to the Union and the South after the war was over. We can argue whether redemption is possible for those that committed treason against the Union, or if there is any act sufficient to allow the commemoration of a Confederate general on American soil, but, putting that aside, this tract is somewhat appealing. After all, there are celebrated Americans that practiced evil—Jefferson’s slaves bore children of his rape and the framers collectively codified slavery within the Constitution; the contribution of our Founding Fathers to inhuman subjugation on the American continent was perhaps more significant than any Confederate’s. How then can we celebrate one while disparaging the other?
The difference lays in the fundamental purposes of the monuments themselves and an acceptance of the imperfection of any historical figure when viewed through the lenses of modernity. It is impossible to deny that the founders were men of great intelligence who created a nation unlike any in existence, replete with an intrinsic, unprecedented respect for the natural rights of man. Conversely, it cannot be ignored that these same great men were products of their time and practitioners of evils now unthinkable. So, when we celebrate them, care must be taken to ensure that what is being recognized are the inarguably positive artifacts of their legacy. The Jefferson Memorial is a gentle slope of marble, appearing at a distance almost as a porcelain turtle shell floating atop the tidal basin. Inscribed beneath its dome are quotes from the Declaration of Independence and Jefferson’s other writings celebrating liberty and equality. The Washington Monument, cutting starkly across the azure blue of clear sky, weaves stone from every state together into an obelisk inspired by those of the ancients, a fitting tribute to modernity and heritage. It hails Washington as the father of country, and the purveyor of freedom through victory. Overwhelmingly, monuments to the Founders recall them for the right reasons – their immense service to the nation and its ideals.
This is not true of Confederate memorials. The memorial in Charlottesville, Virginia, depicts Lee garbed in a Confederate uniform and astride his wartime horse, Traveler. In Marianna, Arkansas, Lee again appears in dress uniform atop an inscription honoring rebel soldiers. A statue in New Orleans, Louisiana, shows Lee positioned to stare down his enemies in the north. In Baltimore, Maryland, he marched alongside his fellow general Stonewall Jackson. When Robert E. Lee Day was recognized, it was given the same date as Martin Luther King Jr. Day—that symbolism should not need any explanation. All of this should not come as a surprise upon examination of the history of the monuments; an analysis of their dates of erection shows precise spikes during the Jim Crow era, and in response to Brown v. Board of Education. In both cases, Lee was being memorialized in response to the enfranchisement of African-Americans. What else could their builders have intended but to frame Lee’s legacy in defiance of the spread of equality? The argument that Lee’s monuments commemorate him for anything other than his service to the Confederacy and all that it represented is nakedly false – when Lee has been celebrated, time and time again it has been for the treasonous war he waged in favor of the practice of slavery. This is intolerable, and any comparison to the monuments to the founders is facetious.
We should sympathize with those who take pride in their southern heritage. Yes, the antebellum way of life was enabled by great evil. Yes, the southern states raised arms in defiance of a government that had moved towards ending that evil. But still, there is something tragic in its erasure. The South was not solely defined by slavery. A form of gentility, saloons filled with folk music of the British Isles and proud men swilling Southern-made whiskey, tremendous banquets attended by corseted belles and mustached beaus, Atlanta itself, rumbling constantly as the railcars stormed in, these things too were taken by the Civil War, “gone with the wind which had swept through Georgia,” as Margaret Mitchell once wrote. There is no shame in remembering this legacy, in identifying with it while still honoring its cost – perhaps the antebellum is even inescapable, woven inseparably into the heart of the South. But Charlottesville’s statue was not a manifestation of such remembrance. Confederate memorials are overwhelmingly tributes to the worst facets of the 19th-century South and its leaders. They celebrate not a way of life, but the fight to propagate the evils that enabled that way of life in defiance of the nation whose soil they stand upon. Indiana Jones said it better than I: “they belong in a museum.”