The recent clashes between two groups of marchers in Charlottesville, Virginia, played out on a national stage, has yet again brought to the surface evidence of the profoundly unsettled and potentially explosive matter of race relations in the United States.
The removal of monuments and statuary stands as the center point, and in some instances the flashpoint, of differing interpretations of what they represent. The arguments for and about keeping them in place reflect a great seesaw of argument about how we should interpret our history today.
Physical symbols can clearly possess remarkable presence and can embody distilled meaning. Symbols can be corporate and reflect a collective consciousness, such as the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington, DC, or the USS Arizona Memorial in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, or they can be intimate and immediate, such as the key ring that my father gave me when I was a teenager and that decades on, I still keep, resting in a drawer, laden with its own consciousness that belies the cold steel from which it is made.
I am reminded of words I utter at a wedding service when I hold the rings in my hand, describing them as “an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.” Memorials are outward and visible signs that speak in powerful ways from an inner voice.
Shades of Gray
An issue with Civil War monuments is that what they utter is contextual. They say one thing to one group and something else to another group.
Many of us hear both voices and understand the whole subject in shades of gray. We wonder how to sort out or parse the conflicting messages contained in the cast bronzes that in so many ways simply seem to acknowledge the valor, bravery, and fidelity of recognizable, authentic heroes. America has always been a land that has acclaimed its champions, and the Civil War was part of our history, so why not recognize all those who fought, whether in gray or blue uniform. Certainly that much it seems is their due.
Here I believe is the place where the analysis must pivot. Individual warriors, of whatever outstanding personal character, cannot be viewed apart from the cause which they served, and their personal actions, however lofty or noble, cannot redeem that cause if it was of itself innately corrupt or immoral.
The Civil War represents an era of great cleansing in the American character, namely the extirpation of slavery as an accepted and acceptable component of our domestic national life. Many other issues may have played a subordinate role in that conflict, but the one immeasurably profound outcome of the struggle was the emancipation and restoration to full personhood for millions of human beings throughout the whole of one United States.
Had all those soldiers and warriors who are memorialized in moments and markers prevailed in the cataclysmic struggle that was the Civil War, those millions who were freed would have remained in chains, and that circumstance would have been not just morally unacceptable, but morally contaminated.
Stripping Away the Veneer of Glory
The argument is made that removing monuments is changing history. I would argue that that gesture is actually revealing history. It is a means of peeling away the veneer of glory and nobility that has been cast upon the literally inhumane practice of slavery and all the abuse, degradation, and theft of opportunity for self-fulfillment that entails.
Those monuments, and the Confederate flag along with them, have been employed as symbols to perpetuate what the Civil War eradicated in explicit fashion, namely, the notion that the black race is inferior to the white and does and should assume a subservient place in society. Such bold pronouncements make any of who are white twitch as if we were standing on hot coals, and accession to this idea is another factor that hinders the removal of these monuments
That sense of differentiation between races still permeates broad sectors of American society a century and a half after the abolition of slavery, and every time something like the removal of monuments seems to confront the rationale that supports a basically segregationist tilt, there is a recoil effect and turmoil and agitation follow.
There is really no middle ground on an issue with such clear moral edges. Those monuments placed in the public square, often literally, and sometimes metaphorically, are nothing less than blaring symbols of oppression and subjugation that was once embedded in our national character.
They may mean little to some of us, being just another memorial like so many other markers that we pass daily throughout our country’s cities and towns and to which we give little thought. Some other people perhaps fervently feel that they represent essential aspects of their histories and speak to a way of life that they revere.
I wonder, though, about those who gaze upon those statues and plaques and flags, and think, that all represents the violation of their ancestors. They further stand as constant reminders that there yet remain those today who would still subjugate these latter generations in various ways.
Does a woman who has been forcefully taken by a man want to see his image championed on a billboard in the town where she lives? Does a person who has been mugged in a street want to see the brick which pounded his head enshrined in a display in a museum? Does a child who has been abused by a parent want to see that parent given public accolade in some fashion?
Some of us can look upon those statues and be of mixed minds, yes. They may seem harmless or may seem to have some quality that we can say is worthy. But because they do invoke memories of so much grave harm visited upon so many, not just without cause, but without right, those whose ancestors were victims of the exploitive practice of slavery deserve to be relieved of these visible and lasting reminders of how they were once so disregarded, and be unburdened from any implication these symbols convey that they might even now be so regarded.
Removing the Symbols of Discrimination
Our public conscience should lead us to want to wash the past clean of grievous errors through demonstrable acts of restorative contrition on behalf of the aggrieved, living and dead. The removal of any monuments from the public square that enshrine the values of subjugation can serve as testimony that, however understood in historical context, we now unequivocally disavow as repugnant the institution of slavery and the structures that supported it, as well as whatever residual shadows of discrimination that have conveyed from it to our present day.