A few days ago, a Washington, DeeCee, commission formed in response to Black Lives Matter issued a report recommending that the Mayor and city government "remove, relocate or contextualize" the Jefferson Memorial and the Washington Monument because of the slave-holding history of those two presidential honorees. The report additionally "recommended renaming dozens of public schools, parks and government buildings in the nation’s capital — including those named for seven U.S. presidents — after studying the historical namesakes’ connections to slavery and oppression."
Conservatives lost their shit. They had not read past the word remove, which -- let's face it -- is both alarming and ridiculous, to get to the word contextualize, which ought always to be done for public art from the past meant to memorialize what certain elite groups were thinking about great personalities and great events at the time.
I can't account for the brilliant minds that decided to list the options that way -- "remove, relocate or contextualize" -- since the failure to deal with reality in the first two options -- relocate the Jefferson Memorial? Seriously?) renders irrelevant the only sensible option, "contextualize," and we're left wondering, "Is this committee a ship of fools or just stampeding for survival with the herd?"
This is what gives liberalism and liberals a bad name. This is what Republicans mean when they screech about "cancel culture." Trump set the pace after Charlottesville: “So this week, it’s Robert E. Lee, I noticed that Stonewall Jackson’s coming down. I wonder, is it George Washington next week? And is it Thomas Jefferson the week after? You know, you really do have to ask yourself, where does it stop?”
If ever Trump could think clearly for a change, or within any contextual frame, I might have to agree with him. I don't like the blunt force trauma of wiping out the history of our mistaken venerations. Civic monuments erected at particular points in our history recorded contemporary thinking about the various flawed individuals who defined our values at that particular time. Contextualizing "Silent Sam" at Chapel Hill would have been preferable to pushing his nose into the dirt. Imagine a new plaque in front of "Silent Sam": "Here stands the expression of white supremacy as it existed in 1890 North Carolina. This statue was meant to proclaim, 'Venerate the Confederacy to keep the Blacks in their place!' "
Southern monuments, in particular those erected between 1890 and 1920 (and most frequently on public property), were mainly reminders of Jim Crow. So I cannot grieve the removal of those set up at court houses, like the one removed from the Chatham County Courthouse in Pittsboro, or the ones on State Capitol grounds also recently removed to storage. Those were objectionable because their expressions of "Our White Heritage" looked, because of their overt placement near the benches of justice, not only sanctioned by government but part-and-parcel of government, with the power to segregate, harass, and execute.
|The North Carolina monument |
at Gettysburg, sculpted by
I cherish the Gettysburg Battlefield which is littered with hundreds of statues -- some of them the size of WWI battleships. The Confederacy is amply and suitably represented. The North Carolina monument in particular haunts me. I had to get up close and study the faces of the soldiers, ordinary enlisted men -- the bravery, determination, and resignation that sculptor Gutzon Borglum, the creator of Mt. Rushmore, captured. Their tragic devotion to the cause of maintaining slavery humbles one's tendency to pass judgment too quickly on our ideological opponents.
Civil War battlefields or museums -- that's where the Confederate monuments and statues belong, within and because of an historical context. There they are no longer the pugnacious and threatening specters of white people lording it over black people to the point of violence. They are images of the brave and dedicated men who rebelled for the sake of maintaining an economy built on slavery, and who paid the ultimate price.
Some of the Southern generals were brilliant and cunning, and those qualities speak to pretty perennial American values. Whether generals or mega-businessmen, we've tended to elevate the most ruthless among us. It's a sad fact (read Jill Lepore's recent "These Truths: A History of the United States") that our Constitution was written essentially to protect property from certain Democratic urges that the elite feared, and especially the property of Southern plantation society. Realizing those flaws in our founding values, contextualizing them (and amending the damn Constitution!), is the best we can do with what we've been given. We can't remove our foundations, but we can understand them more profoundly.