These past weeks have featured discussion about the place of historical monuments in modern America, particularly those devoted to the memory of the Confederacy and generals such as Robert E. Lee. Often I hear people talk about the way in which removal is supposedly “erasing” the past. But the creation of the monuments themselves was an exercise in historical revision, valorizing a Confederate cause that, as Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens proudly declared in 1861, rested “upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man.” This, Stephens and other Confederate officials so grossly claimed, was the improvement their new nation offered upon the original U.S. Constitution. Monuments celebrated heroism of generals and attempted to gloss over such political beliefs, and in the 1910s and 1920s were erected by citizens and groups intent on upholding the Lost Cause and sanctioning Jim Crow laws and attitudes.
I wonder what would happen if we shifted discussion of the monuments to a conversation about what we want in the present and future. History is so often a powerful weapon deployed to advance a suggestion, hope, or argument for the present, or even the future; that’s what the monument makers were doing, after all. What kind of future are we fighting for? Isn’t it one where we want to abandon, forever, the notion of inequality upon which the Confederacy was founded? And if so, wouldn’t that be the message sent by abandoning display of the Confederate flag and thoughtfully considering removal of monuments? It isn’t about abandoning or removing the past, but about fully reckoning with it and moving forward for a better, more inclusive, more egalitarian future, one of which we can be proud.
Bonnie Laughlin-Schultz, Charleston