The argument is that it is not about history. Well, yes, it is. It’s about sordid, depraved history that does not deserve to be memorialized in public but hidden in the dark recesses of a museum.
Instead of tearing them down lawlessly as we did Saddam Hussein’s statues, they deserve to be dismantled with liturgy, memory, repentance, and public dedications to reconciliation, peace, and justice.
During his infamous press conference this Tuesday, as he vehemently defended his claim that both sides were to blame for the violence in Charlottesville, Donald Trump declared “many of these people were there to protest the taking down of the statue of Robert E Lee. This week, it is Robert E Lee … is it George Washington next?”
In Trump’s view, some of the protesters were there simply to protect and preserve American history. “Not all of those people were white supremacists,” he said. One shouldn’t expect, I suppose, Trump to see the intimate connection between the two.
A debate has ensued, once again, about the role and place of memorialization of the Confederacy. The city of Baltimore, under the cover of night, removed all of its Confederate monuments. In April, New Orleans did the same and the city’s mayor, Mitch Landrieu, eloquently explained why.
Cities throughout the country – from Boston, Massachusetts to Jacksonville, Florida – are actively considering removing Confederate monuments. In Durham, North Carolina, Takiyah Thompson and other activists took the matter into their own hands. They tied a rope around a statue of an armed Confederate soldier and pulled it to the ground.Trump took to Twitter to lament it all. “Sad to see the history and culture of our great country being ripped apart with the removal of our beautiful statues and monuments. You can’t change history … ” But, honestly, the debate about these monuments isn’t about history at all. It’s about what we choose to remember and to forget.
Historians and a host of others have recently written articles, appeared on news shows, and engaged in tweetstorms to show that these monuments have little, if anything, to do with the actual civil war or the so-called heroes of the Confederacy.
An infographic from the Southern Poverty Law Center demonstrates that the majority of the monuments were built between 1910 and 1920 as Jim Crow became law throughout the south and, later, during the 1950s and 1960s as African Americans demanded full citizenship.
These are monuments to white supremacy, and therein lies the connection with the “white supremacist thugs” we saw in Charlottesville. But Trump, like so many others, chooses to actively forget this history in order to preserve an illusory innocence that hides our national sins.
What we choose to forget often reveals the limits of justice in our collective imaginations. What we choose to memorialize reflects what we actually value. If we tell the story of these monuments as if they are innocent representations of our past, without consideration of the historical context and what they actually represent, we breathe life into a view of this country that makes the white extremists possible. We become complicit with the lie that America is, in fact, a white nation.