In 2003 the North Carolina Legislature required that places in western Carolina’s Jackson County with names like Niggerskull Mountain and Niggerskull Creek be changed. Unanimity followed. Demonstrations in opposition did not. The legislature wasn’t erasing history. It was finally erasing remnants of a culture that depended on erasing the humanity of an entire race. Revolting as the names were, the fact that it wasn’t until the 21st century that they were removed should tell you something about the endurance of cultural depravity, masked as it so often is in the euphemisms of “heritage” and “history.”
Those particular names are gone. But it is 2017, and the purveyors and defenders of those names, the men who fought for the right to utter and impose them, are not. Those who worship them are now defending the monuments to those men, using the same euphemisms in the name of the same etymology of degradation. As always with euphemisms, they make it sound like it’s about the innocent defense of Sunday school catechism. What’s disappointing is when the men and women we sometimes depend on for moral clarity, for bulwarks to bullshit, fall for it.
So a fascinating conversation triggered by Flagler’s own Colleen Conklin, the school board member, caught my eyes on her Facebook page.
“I can’t contain myself,” she wrote (she rarely can). “I’m sure I’ll regret this post. But I can’t stand it anymore. IMHO You can’t erase history. You can’t. Attempting to do so is questionable. The history they represent may not be appropriate but it’s part of OUR history. Discuss it, share it, debate it but you can’t erase it. Forcing the removal of these statues is doing nothing but feeding the hate.”
Unlike Romans crucifying Christ, she knew well what she was doing: she was inviting her own crucifixion, though Flagler County having become a redoubt of Trumpian apologists, the nails were more velvet than rust, and the 80-some exchanges were more absorbing than not: Conklin has a way of steering conversations onto the most harrowing subjects (teen suicide, bullying, nudy art and racism), often with constructive results. She did it again with this post, its wealth of bonkers premises notwithstanding: the problem is that most of the debate’s premises are bonkers, so in a twisted sense, hers was a lucid reflection of the incoherence and anachronisms framing the “our history” claim.
I happen to disagree with Conklin’s take on the monuments. It reflects a simplistic understanding of the issue that conflates all statues, all monuments with all histories, as if the monuments themselves don’t have their own ideological language and history separate from the history they claim to represent–which Confederate memorials very much do: that’s why they were put up. Conklin’s take assumes that all monuments are created equal by virtue of having been created, as if not catching the irony: we’re talking about monuments to men who fought a war in the name of inequality and racial supremacy. And she buys into the claim that history is being “erased” by dint of removing these monstrosities from public grounds, which is as ridiculous as claiming that the history of the holocaust is being partially erased by not having Himmler, Hitler and Goebbels riding three magnificent horses (or tinkering with ovens) in a superb carving on, say, Stone Mountain, Ga.
But again, Conklin knows what she does. I’m not entirely convinced she actually believes what she says in her post. She clearly hasn’t thought it through, as her answer to Jon Hardison indicates (Hardison’s part is posted below). But she has that in common with Trump: she knows what buttons to push, what posts to Facebook. She’s not been among Flagler’s biggest electoral winners election after election by chance, and I’ve enjoyed some of my most rewarding debates with her. Disagreeing is not the point. Debating is. In this society of monologues and echo chambers, it’s encouraging that debate happens at all, as was the case with the responses Conklin triggered.
But debating alone is not the only virtue, either. There’s a point where agreeing to disagree–that mantra of the coward–becomes a complicit endorsement of the inadmissible. It’s OK to disagree on whether the Civil War was necessary or not, whether Robert E. Lee was a traitor or an honorable general, even whether secession was a right endorsed by the framers or not (it was), or whether Lincoln repeatedly violated the constitution to enforce the union (he did). I don’t think it’s OK to disagree about the fact that the South fought to preserve genocidal centuries of oppression and degradation and subsequently resurrected the oppression under Jim Crow. If we disagree over basic facts we’re not debating history but rewriting it, and not only rewriting history but collaborating in the erasure of the humanity of a people: we are re-brutalizing Dred Scott’s descendants and re-endorsing the objectification of a people as only three-fifth the worth of a human being. We’re just doing it in the shadow of monuments.
Of course I’d rather have the debate than not. But getting somewhere in the process would be helpful beyond empty bromides about “healing.” Aspirin heals a headache. Evidence heals misconceptions. I’d like to think the conversation Conklin started may do just that, even with her. Some examples:
Nancy Nally: “Normally I would agree with you about preserving artifacts of racism. We need to see Sally Hemings’ quarters preserved at Monticello (as well as the other slave quarters). We need to see concentration camps preserved so we don’t forget. But these statues weren’t erected as memorials…they were erected solely to serve as a bludgeon on oppressed people. That bludgeoning is not part of history…it is ongoing…and that is why we can’t preserve the statues as “history” – because they aren’t “history” but an ongoing offense.”
Christine Davis Barwick: “I agree with you Colleen. I think the point is that the inscription on the statue in Durham says “dedicated to the boys who wore grey.” We have to remember that he soldiers who fought in the south were following the orders of their commanders just like their own brothers in the north. They died just like their brothers in the north. Whether they believed in the cause, whether the cause was right or wrong is irrelevant. They followed orders and died. The statue is in honor of them. Why shouldn’t they be honored? They died serving their country which is part of our history. We cannot change our history.”
Scott W. Spradley: “To me, the distinction is that a monument (statue) is placed in the public domain to honor its subject. A museum is a place to preserve history, good or bad. As a Southerner (N.C.), I have never understood or agreed with many of my friends and even family, that Confederate artifacts belong in a place of honor, instead of a place destined to preserve history. The whole: “The South Will Rise Again!” mentality has totally escaped me, despite my efforts to understand it. So I fall on the side of supporting the peaceful moving of the artifacts from the places of honor they occupy, to a museum or the graveyard or other place more suitable to preserve a sad chapter in the Country’s history.”
Zapper Flye: “So we define a person by 1 action in their life? Robert E Lee was more that what the media wants you to know, believe and feel. Which 1 moment in your life will we define you as?”
John Hardison: “How would you feel if you were raped? Awful, right? How would you feel if your rapist got a park named after him? How would you feel if you rapist got a park named after him BECAUSE HE RAPED YOU? Now how would you feel if you rapist also got a very dignified looking statue erected in that park BECAUSE HE RAPED YOU? Now walk through that park and look at that statue every day knowing that your kids and their kids will look up at your rapist twice a day for the rest of their lives. There’s a difference between remembering and celebrating. If we need to remember that badly we should seriously considering renaming Palm Coast Parkway. Hitler Blvd? We certainly need to remember that right now, no? I mean, it’s not like he was my oppressor so what difference would it make to me? Ask yourself how you might feel about your kids playing in Hitler Park under a grand statue of a man that killed millions of people. Particularly if you’re one of the people he’d have wanted dead. These monuments celebrate those that fought for slavery. They celebrate the murder of tens of millions of people. The sons and daughters of the confederacy have fought a good fight for a long time but the days of Black children playing in parks and walking avenues named for men that saw them as dogs – That’s done. It never should have happened. As to this being OUR history? We need to stop doing that. No. It’s their history. WE are the United States of America. OUR history is not THEIR history. We literally went to WAR to make sure their would never be our history! On Southern Pride: There are all kinds of things to be proud of. Always. If you can’t separate your Southern pride from your slavery or love of those who sought to keep the right to own people, you have a VERY serious problem. But it’s a personal problem. Take as much time as you like to work it out. The rest of us need to move on.”
Weldon Ryan: “Have no fear Colleen. The fact is history is as truthful as the people who wrote it. History has as many versions as the people that lived it. But the fact that all of these statues and monuments are of traitors that stood on the wrong side of humanity is the issue. The historical cruelness, brutality and lack of empathy of those who still erected these images to pay homage to this history instead of images of the America that we as Americans want and deserve and of the Americans that stood for righteousness is the issue. Why was it tolerated in the first place. Now that we’re at a point to take them down, why not.”
PT Thomas: “The Civil War was the most divisive time in America’s history. After the war, the wounds ran deep especially with the way the South was ransacked by carpet baggers. Part of the healing process was the installation of monuments honoring war heroes on both sides. No, this was not like erecting statues honoring the likes of Hitler. These were by any definition of the term, Americans. This was a war where Americans fought Americans. It was family against family. Friend against friend. It just seems ironic that these monuments are now causing division where they once brought unity. Personally I think a lot of these feelings of being offended are manufactured and then spoon fed to the public. Creating division is a specialty of socialists. It is the only way they can gain power and so many voters are eager consumers of propaganda.”
And this last, posted this morning, from Heather Beaven, with the image to the right: “If you want to remember our history. If you want to use it as a teachable moment. Then you should erect accurate symbols of the time and the reason why 600,000 Americans died.” (See the full conversation here.)
The battle over Confederate memorials is nothing new. It’s a continuation of the same war by other means. “Across the region, from the courthouse squares where Confederate monuments stand to the statehouses where the battle flag still flies, the symbols of the Old South are under siege. And just as those symbols represent something larger, so do the day’s skirmishes over pennants and songs and memorials.”
Kevin Sack of The New York Times wrote those lines 20 years ago, in February 1997, weeks after the Virginia Senate had voted to retire the racist song “Carry Me Back to Old Virginny,” a song ostensibly from the mouth of a slave (There’s where the darkey’s heart am longed to go./There’s where I labored so hard for old massa,/Day after day in the field of yellow corn,/No place on earth do I love more sincerely). The Senate did so even as three of the song’s most fabulous renditions were by Louis Armstrong, Ray Charles and Marian Anderson. It was written in 1878 by James Bland, himself black, as a reflection of the hard times ex-slaves were having finding work. It was the sort of song an Ann Coulter of the day would have seized on to claim that, hey, slavery couldn’t have been so bad if blacks were pining for it so soulfully.
Virginia had been trying to get rid of the song, at least as an official state song, for 27 years, going back to 1970, when Doug Wilder became a state senator. He failed again and again, even when he became America’s first black governor since Reconstruction. By 1997, it was too much. Florida’s black legislators tried to do away with “Swanee River” and its “darkies,” but failed: it’s still the state song. But back in the late 1990s, “almost every week, it seems,” the Times reporter wrote, “Confederate symbolism inspires some new act of violence or vandalism.” Nothing has changed, except maybe our tolerance level for the unnecessary.
Most of those monuments referred to the Civil War, but as several of the respondents to Conklin eloquently put it, they were not erected so much as memorials to that era as they were in reaction to such developments as the 14th Amendment and as symbolic pedestals to Jim Crow, the apartheid system the South established in the embers of Reconstruction: the monuments were an echo of the Lost Cause reconstituted as a victory under the banner of heritage. In 1915, the United Daughters of the Confederacy, a white supremacist organization created in 1894 and devoted chiefly to the erection of Confederate monuments, commemorated the South’s Mount Rushmore at Georgia’s Stone Mountain: the carved figures of Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson and Jefferson Davis rode agross the face of the granite, beatified in stone. The carving was begun by Gutzon Borglum, the carver of Mount Rushmore and himself a enthusiastic white supremacist and KKK sympathizer who considered “Nordics” the master race. As Tony Horowitz wrote in “Confederates in the Attic” (1998), Stone Mountain “was intended as the South’s foremost Confederate shrine. It also became a rallying place for the Ku Klux Klan.”
So these monuments’ history is more more telling than the history they pretend to be recalling. They are the disturbing story more than the story they claim to preserve. It is disturbing when societies demolish their history, especially in the name of some form of purity. But Confederate monuments were–and are– in fact intended to re-write history rather than to honor it. They are the visual symbols of a historical cleansing that racist organizations purposefully sprouted with the same ideological and implied violence as they did Jim Crow laws and its perversions of justice.
To put it more colloquially, they were, and are, their era’s fake news. By accepting the monuments’ existence at least on public grounds we’re endorsing the historical fallacies and cleansing they represent. Removing them from public grounds doesn’t remove history. It displaces history’s perverted interpretations. That’s not to say that the “Jews will not replace us” barbershop choruses don’t also have the right to march publicly: the ACLU is right to protect the marchers (assuming they don’t have their own mercenaries). But marches are temporary. Statues are not. The statues have overstayed a welcome they never deserved, and are being turned into shrines for torched and bile-tongued nostalgists for Auschwitz and Old Virginny we don’t deserve. So relegate those statues and monuments to their rightful places: to museums, to mausoleums, or to private places of worship where white supremacists, neo-Nazis, Jew haters, Arab haters, immigrant haters, daughters of confederacies and sons of bitches have every right to gather, chant and spew whatever they please, but not on public grounds.