On Statues and Memories -- An Open Letter to Donald Trump
So it turns out I’m a Civil War buff.
I came by it honestly: my parents met at Gettysburg College. My father lived in a residence hall on campus that was used as a hospital during the battle. My only grandmother lived in Gettysburg for most of my childhood and early adult life, and between family reunions and family trips to visit to her, I have wandered that battlefield many, many times. And many others as well.
But my interest in the Civil Way grew on a different vine as well. I grew up in North Carolina during the era of bussing and integration. (Long time readers know that, on the basis of Swann v Charlotte, I was bussed for racial integration from the second grade to the twelfth.) In other words, I grew up in the South when the “lost cause” and “evil Yankees” and “states’ rights not slavery” narratives were in full swing, accepted as mantra by most people – or at least most white people.
But not me. I always found them bullshit. Maybe that’s because while I grew up in North Carolina, my family is not from there. My father grew up in Pennsylvania and Ohio, and while my mother grew up in Arlington, VA (on Lee Street, for that matter! And attended racially segregated Lee High School. Then again, my father’s Ohio schools were fully segregated as well.) Maybe it’s because I was (am?) a curmudgeon and a contrarian.
But whatever the reason, I didn’t buy the lost cause, or the states’ rights arguments (states’ rights to do what? Oh, yeah: legalize slavery.), or any of the other explanations Southerners offered to justify their secession. Those arguments were, and are, naked rationalizations of white racial dominance through the economic, political, and physical exploitation of people of African heritage.
However, my having rejected the rationalizations spewed at me never stopped me from remembering. From learning. From growing.
You see, you don’t need commemorative statues honoring traitors and losers to REMEMBER and LEARN what they did and why they did it. (Notably, I’m less bothered than some by the statues in battlefields: they are markers and guides to who did what where and when; they enhance understanding.) You especially don’t need statues like the one in Charlottesville (and lots of other places) when the purpose for which they were erected was and is a distortion of historical truth: that an elite of Southern slave holding men led half the country into a rebellion they were awfully likely to lose, and one that was against the interests of vast numbers of their citizens – much less the citizens of the nation at large.
Statues like the ones in Charlottesville and Richmond and a thousand other places distort the truth, and so disrupt memory. They undermine learning. They actually prevent knowledge.
So, President Trump, taking down a statue in Charlottesville (or anywhere else) does not destroy culture or memory or the search for truth. It enhances it.
If I thought you were the kind or person who could understand this message, well, I’d be a lot more optimistic about your presidency than I am. But we both know you aren’t. Which is probably why you like all those giant statue-like portraits of yourself – or, of yourself as you fantasize you are.