The following post was written by the encyclopedia’s associate editor, Laura Baker.
It’s time to let the country talk about pulling down Confederate monuments. It’s past time, in fact; way way past time.
The conversation happening in our country right now is part practical—we are asking why we have tolerated flying the Confederate battle flag like it’s some kind of eccentricity, excusing it the way we excuse our weird uncle’s affection for putting his bare feet on the kitchen table. We are in the process of re-evaluating old monuments with our current understandings of history. The removal of offensive symbols brings up practical questions, like the one asked in the previous blog post: “If we get rid of them, won’t it just be that much easier to forget?” These are questions that raise tangible concerns about where we begin and where we end, and what we may lose in the process.
But these national conversations are not only practical; they are also cathartic. The years that these monuments have stood in our public squares have worn on us. We need the anger and the activism and the legislative proposals, and, yes, even the graffiti. We need the current public outcry to remove monuments because it is how we start to change the cultural memory from Confederate nostalgia. It is how we argue that this is a problem with our understanding of history and not simply a problem of political correctness.
I say let the conversations go on unfettered. I am not worried that tearing down statues will aid in forgetting our troubled past. Let all the local governments consider pulling down all their Confederate monuments. Let community historians come to city council meetings and tell us what they know. Let citizens step up to the mic and catalogue each town’s monuments and buildings and plaques where we once commemorated something we now find repugnant. I want the litany to begin. It will help us heal, and it will help us learn.
If we end these conversations too soon and don’t fully propose tearing down these monuments, we will never revisit where they came from and what they really mean for us. As a lifelong student of American race relations and a University of Virginia employee in the field of Virginia history, I was a little taken aback this year when it took a young college student offering a slavery tour of UVA to enlighten me that our own Jordan Hall is actually named for a prominent and enthusiastic eugenic scientist who promoted sterilization and the criminalization of interracial marriage. With so many stories like this one still untold for us, I would hate for us to declare that old memorials should stay and inadvertently conclude these important conversations.
We need to talk about tearing down our monuments because we still don’t know enough about our monuments. In some cases, the statues may ultimately come down. We may decide to remove some of our prominent memorials to the Confederate dead and we may dramatically topple a few Stonewall Jacksons like so many Lenins. But I’m betting that the time and politics and—quite frankly—the logistics of pulling apart every one of our town squares and removing all evidence of our dark racial history is unlikely.
Faced with the overwhelming task of demolishing all the statues and removing all the markers and changing all the dedications on all the court houses and hospital wings and libraries, I don’t believe we are in danger of forgetting our country’s celebration of racial oppression. From where I stand, there is only good to be gained by a nation planning to remove these monuments if only because, in many cases, we didn’t even realize we had these monuments. Because of this national conversation, I’m learning something new every day. For instance, today I learned about the racial legacy found in the street names near Emanuel A.M.E. Church, the site of the shooting deaths of nine people in Charleston, South Carolina.
Whatever the actual result of all these plans to tear down Confederate monuments, the plans themselves are one big history lesson happening in real time. And I don’t want to miss a minute of it.
IMAGE: The equestrian statue of Robert E. Lee, in Lee Park, Charlottesville (Wikimedia Commons)