Where Should the Present Iconoclasm End?

The Confederate memorial on the grounds of the Alabama capitol

The Confederate memorial on the grounds of the Alabama capitol

I set out to further explore Dylann Roof’s inspirations today. I might still do that, but others have written what I might have and probably done a better job of it than I would. For a deeper look at the mechanics of the system of white domination in Rhodesia, this UNESCO document came to my attention via Liam Hogan on twitter.

Instead of that, I’d like to consider a question posed by a fellow blogger. Over at Cenantua, Robert Moore asks, with Confederate flags going down and leaving stores, what falls next? He has a list of continuations on the theme:

We have discussions for the removal of Confederate statuary, that, though without the Confederate flag anywhere thereon.

We have vandalism (I think I’ve seen stories about 3 or 4 monuments so far) on Confederate statuary.

We have discussions about removing the names of Confederate generals from our military bases. (strange I haven’t heard about another base, which is named for a former member, and officer of the national organization of the Sons of Confederate Veterans. Give it time, I suppose).

We have vandalism on non-Confederate statuary… the John C. Calhoun statue in Charleston. Though Calhoun died in 1850, he was a defender of slavery. Obviously, the “protests” have moved outside the Civil War and Confederate symbolism.

Then, last night, I saw, in the New York Post, a call for removing the film Gone With the Wind, from sales, etc.

I don’t know that Robert would agree with me, but I think most of those sound like really good ideas. Of the list, object to only two and only with qualifications.

Though I see essentially zero risk of it, I would oppose any kind of legal ban on the sale of Gone with the Wind or other such works. I don’t think this requires much explanation, so suffice it to say that I hold to the school that the answer to bad speech comes best in the form of more and better speech. However, if retailers choose to adopt policies of not selling the book, Confederate flags, and so forth then I have no objection at all. Indeed, I approve of their doing so insofar as their private bans don’t entail also such a broad net as to sweep in serious and respectable works which have the flag on their covers. I don’t mind at all if they relegate Confederate propaganda and other species of dressed-up racism to the less reputable outfits where they belong.

That leaves vandalism. I’ve read of several cases where statues have had pro-equality slogans and criticism spray painted on their pedestals. I object, but very weakly so. Cleaning the statues will cost money that could go to other things, as Al Mackey points out. The message would be as well expressed by a sign left at the site, and more durably so by getting a market put up beside them. A good message deserves better methods.

A corrective marker could begin by noting that the celebrated individuals won their accolades, including their statues and monuments, for deeds we now find reprehensible and go on to detail their human costs. I quite like the idea of accompanying every statue of Robert E. Lee with a sign reading something to the effect of “This man fought for slavery. For that, in the eyes of past generations, he earned this statue.” The marker could go on to detail Lee’s slave whipping exploit and his personal commitment to the institution’s perpetuity. Make it big and impossible to miss. I don’t expect these markers to spring up very quickly. The latter-day admirers of the Confederacy’s cause will fight them tooth and nail. It took us nine lives on top of fifty years, at least, of activism to take down some flags. The exponents of racial hatred have that much power.

Robert E. Lee, Virginia aristocrat, military officer, and future confederate general

Robert E. Lee

Failing augmentation with corrective markers, I don’t see why we have to keep these monuments at all. I have no objection to their removal to private property or their destruction by the bodies which own them. I would prefer either to their remaining in situ and unaccompanied by correctives. The roads and buildings all can and should have their names changed easily enough. In the place of Confederates and other proslavery men, I would use the names of those who resisted slavery and fought to end it. Ideally, these should come from the history of the area or the area of the person formally honored, and with a preference for enslaved people. Calhoun Street can become Vesey Street. (Though dead ten years too early to become a Confederate, Calhoun won his fame defending slavery just as they did.) For Lee, we can substitute Nat Turner or Gabriel Prosser.

This does not constitute an erasure of history. By renaming buildings, relocating or removing monuments we do not wipe away the past or deny what happened any more than we do by adding correctives. We do, however, change our relationship with the pasts they represent. We don’t name streets, buildings, or erect statues and monuments to people we revile. We do this for people we honor and celebrate. By doing it in a public space, we declare that our communities should take them as exemplars. The people who did the naming and dedicated the statues understood that. They established for themselves and future generations a civic safe space to express their admiration for the literally murderous exponents of white supremacy and slavery above all other concerns. In reversing that, we do the same and carve out a safe, or at least safer, space for black Americans and others who have had the burdens of the nation forced upon them and extracted from their lives often enough.

Where, then, could monuments and memorials to those who fought in the name of slavery and earned their fame in doing so remain? I oppose the removal of educational markers at historical sites. Something like a stone saying this unit fought here serves an obvious use and does not, to my mind, suggest in itself any form of celebration. I would also oppose removing markers from the actual graves of Confederates in cemeteries. Marking a grave doesn’t necessitate making a political statement and replacing all the CSA headstones seems both impractical and unnecessary, though I might support some kind of grant program to descendants who wanted changes made.

Memorials to Confederate soldiers or Confederate dead, on the other hand, do just that. They function just as monuments to individual Confederates do. Whatever element of mourning went into them died with their next of kin and belonged more properly at individual graves regardless. They serve now as calls to celebrate and honor a group of people united solely in their defense of slavery. I class their unaltered, unaugmented maintenance as one of many ways in which we still affirm their cause. If we choose to do that, as we have so often done in the past, then we should expect others to understand us not as making a neutral acknowledgement of our past. Even if we could manage such a thing, we couldn’t do it with celebratory markers.

I hope that, as with the Confederate Battle Flag, when we see such acts we think not of some nebulous and presumed neutral or positive “heritage” but rather of the real price that our attachment to white supremacy has exacted. When we see them we should think, among other things, of scenes like this:

Peter from Louisiana

Peter from Louisiana

A hand with a whip in it, slicing out great ribbons of black flesh from the back of Peter Gordon.

Margaret Garner with tears in her eyes as she draws her three-year old daughter close and opens her throat with a knife to spare her a lifetime of rape and torture, then desperately reaching for a coal shovel to spare her three sons. She couldn’t save them in time.

The crowd at a lynching, coming up to the not yet dead bodies of a Luther Holbart and woman they thought his wife, carving off plugs of flesh for souvenirs, once their fingers ran out. They then burned the victims alive. The mob, men, women, and children partook of deviled eggs, lemonade, whiskey, and made a picnic of it.

The headline from the New Orleans States: 3,000 WILL BURN NEGRO. The police turned John Hartfield over to the mob at the scheduled time, four in the afternoon, all very proper and orderly. They burned him alive.

If we still feel like celebrating after that, then we deserve what others think of us. The real erasure and denial of history comes in pretending that we do not celebrate what we do, that the Confederates and their antecedents did not fight for what they did, and that their ideas about race do not have a powerful resonance for far too many Americans today. We all have unfortunate, often horrifying ancestors. It does us no harm to admit to that and may do much good. They had their lives and we have our own. If we insist that judgment of them constitutes judgment of us, then we should also accept that we do so because we want to share in their record rather than depart from it.

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One comment on “Where Should the Present Iconoclasm End?

  1. Well said, all of it. In Arlington, Virginia, two of our major thoroughfares are Jefferson Davis Highway (a segment of Route 1) and Lee Highway. One of the local high schools is Washington-Lee, another is JEB Stuart. There’s a Stonewall Jackson Shrine down US 95. Heritage my ass. It’s a statement. It’s time to make a new statement. There’s no question of making it up to racism’s victims; that’s impossible. It’s a matter of rejecting the cause that Stuart, Jackson, Davis, and Lee fought for, and the continuing racist attitudes that inspired their lionization. I don’t see the necessity of replacing the monuments with anything, and if they aren’t removed, I like your proposal to add markers.

    I have seen excellent museums and historical explanations of the Civil War and antebellum life in the South. The yahoos are losing the culture war, but either don’t know it yet or are deeply resentful of this development.

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