The initial rush of removing Confederate statues has passed, but the cat is out of the bag and remains on the hunt.
Critics of white supremacy have found satisfaction in the movement, while supporters complain that activists are out to erase history.
We’ve been reminded that most of the statues were erected, not shortly after the Civil War, but during the Jim Crow era of the early 20th century. White supremacists used the memorials as lasting “in your face” gestures designed to reassert white dominance over Black residents across the South.
I saw them while growing up, usually perched at main intersections or village squares of towns that couldn’t afford more than a granite obelisk, standing like a middle finger over passers-by. I saw the impressive bronze statue of John Brown Gordon atop his horse at the state capital in Atlanta. At Stone Mountain, I marveled at the gigantic carving of Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson and Jefferson Davis on horseback with their hats held reverently over their hearts.
I had no idea the sculptor, also responsible for Mount Rushmore, was an outspoken fan of the Ku Klux Klan.
As a boy, I thought the granite colossi were simple memorials for brave ancestors who risked their lives for a lost cause, however misguided it might have been.
Like many others, it was years before I realized the true nature of the monuments as instruments of psychological oppression and public paeans to white supremacy.
It’s about time they came down, and it’s a crying shame it took so many years and so many thoughtless killings for so many of us to recognize their true nature.
Who knew it would take the advent of smartphone video cameras and social media to get centuries of brutality against Black Americans off the back burner?
Who knows whether we’ll have the moral fortitude to keep racism’s ugly history in our conscience long enough to make real progress toward a more just society?
Dismantling the monuments of white supremacy is a start, but only a start.
While critics of the movement – whether they admit their supremacist leanings or not – criticize the effort to “erase history,” it’s helpful to realize that dishonoring the dishonorable is nothing new.
In ancient Egypt, it was not at all unusual for the monuments of past pharaohs to be destroyed or for giant inscriptions to be chiseled out or edited when their views fell from favor.
Monumental inscriptions found in archaeological contexts are often in fragments, broken by later conquerors and buried or repurposed as building blocks for walls.
A recent blog by Luke Waltham acquainted me with the term damnatio memoriae, a modern expression used to describe the Roman practice of publicly condemning past rulers who had abused their positions.
Sometimes, the Roman senate officially censured a past ruler, sanctioning the destruction or defacing of statues designed to idolize the former ruler. The senate swiftly condemned Domitian, for example, who ruled from 81-96 CE, and many of his images were smashed.
At other times, the public took matters into their own hands by destroying statues of cruel rulers or throwing them into the river.
And the practice has continued in modern times. You wouldn’t expect to find a lot of prideful monuments to Hitler and Nazi rule in Germany or statues of apartheid leaders in South Africa.
The removal of memorials designed to glorify slave owners and white supremacist rule is long overdue.
And, contrary to those who cry over “cancel culture” and bemoan the erasing of history, the dismantling of oppressive and offensive monuments is adding a better chapter to our history, one that cements a clearer understanding of the statues’ original purpose and condemns it.
I understand it’s hard for many folks to give up one of the more public symbols of their past life and present worldview. Among other things, it forces us to confront our deep-seated racism, however unrecognized it may be.
Warehousing or deep-sixing a boatload of ill-considered monuments is a small price to pay for getting a poisonous worldview out of our subconscious and into our active thinking. Only then can it spark repentance and important steps for reconciliation.
Some things deserve to be condemned.