Charlottesville, Virginia, was buzzing in 2017 with talk about the possibility of removing Confederate monuments in the city.
At first, I was ambivalent.
On the one hand, I had no interest in valorizing Confederate heroes like Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson in our parks or the “Johnny Reb” statue that stood guard in front of the Albemarle County Courthouse.
On the other hand, I couldn’t see how removing those Confederate symbols would make a tangible difference in the fight for racial justice and equity.
While I noticed them in our public square, their impact on me was minimal.
However, hard conversations within the Charlottesville Clergy Collective opened my eyes and my heart to better see and understand the destructive nature of these statues and monuments.
During those conversations, I grappled with these questions:
What is the meaning of a public statue?
According to art historian Erin L. Thompson, a statue is “a bid for immortality” and “a way of solidifying an idea and making it present to other people.”
Statues in public places present a specific point of view and claim that “this version of history is the public version of history.”
What version of history is advanced by these Confederate statues?
I learned how the majority of these statues advance the “Lost Cause of the Confederacy” narrative to perpetuate racism and advance white supremacist power structures.
The majority of these statues were erected not right after the Civil War as memorials in cemeteries, but between 1900 and 1920 during the Jim Crow era, and in the 1950s and 1960s during the modern civil rights era to suppress the gains made by African Americans.
How did these Confederate monuments affect African Americans?
My Black pastor friends recall how those statues were erected in public spaces where they were forbidden to enter.
Those Confederate symbols were painful reminders of not just the enslavement of their ancestors in the past, but also the continuing discrimination, hatred and bigotry they experience in the present.
That hatred and bigotry were on full display on Aug. 11-12, 2017, by the white nationalists and neo-Nazis who violently protested the proposed removal of the Lee statue, while shouting racist and anti-Semitic chants and killing counter protester Heather Heyer and injuring dozens of others.
As a result of that traumatic experience, it is now clear to me that these Confederate statues physically bolster the idea and legitimacy of white supremacy in American society that serves to remind Blacks, Jews, Muslims and other minorities that “you will not replace us.”
Removing these symbols and plausibility structures of white supremacy is a necessary step toward a more just and equitable society.
I disagree with those who contend that removing these statues in public spaces is “erasing history.”
I contend the history of “our heritage” has always been present and visible for those who have eyes to see.
We don’t need monuments of steel and stone to remind us that:
- The heritage of slavery is present in the bodies of American Descendants of Slavery who carry within them generational trauma and pain. They are the living memorials to this history.
- The heritage of white supremacy is still exerting its oppression on African Americans in the form of denigrating stereotypes, belittling micro-aggressions, discriminatory hiring and housing practices, inferior physical and mental health outcomes, among others.
- This heritage of white domination is still alive when white people call the police on Black people who are just trying to live their lives and do their jobs.
- This heritage of violence against Black bodies is still tragically embedded in our law enforcement, legal and criminal justice systems.
- This heritage of exclusion is still present in our segregated neighborhoods, in our schools, our governments, the governing boards of our institutions and the C-Suites of our corporations.
I cannot erase this history even if I want to.
I only want to dismantle one telling of history that only celebrates the stories of those who fought against the United States for the sake of enslaving others for their own gain.
I want to tell a more inclusive history so the untold stories and ignored experiences of Black, brown and native peoples may also see the light of day.
I am advocating for a common history to highlight the fact our present lives and our future flourishing are linked together.
I want to recover a more truthful history freeing us from whitewashing, from selective memory and from the enslavement of our spirits to shame, fear and hatred.
Jesus said, “For you shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free.”
May it be so for us all.
Editor’s note: This article is part of a series this week on racial justice. The other articles in the series are:
Your Church Can’t Separate Faith, Anti-Racism Work | Aurelia Davila Pratt
As Monuments Come Tumbling Down | William Brackney
Some Still Revising South’s Reasons for Civil War | Terrell Carter
Questioning Racial Identity: Living on Wrong Terms | Starlette Thomas
Photo: Anthony Crider / Wikipedia.com (https://tinyurl.com/y83rg6sn) Cropped