Monumental Myths: The Glory of the Confederacy and The Kindly Kims
Confederate memorials are again (of course) making headlines, specifically in Charlottesville, Virginia this weekend with a statue of General Lee in the formerly eponymous Lee Park, now renamed Emancipation Park. The statue was vandalized with paint and KKK protestors of the Loyal White Knights turned out in the nearby Justice Park to protest. According to the Washington Post’s report, some wore Klan robes, and others shouted “white power.” This wasn’t a protest about keeping history alive; this was a racist protest for white supremacy. And that is the unique danger of maintaining statues that stand for the annals of evil. KKK protests against “erasing white history,” (according to a KKK member/protestor quoted in the Washington Post), reminds me of an unexpected debate I faced on Facebook last month when I posted an article by Adam Serwer from The Atlantic: “The Myth of the Kindly General Lee.”
“The Myth of the Kindly General Lee” was written to the relevancy of cities around the States like New Orleans that are in the process of removing Confederate statues. In this case, it’s a statue of General Lee, while drawing traction with a simultaneous debate in Arizona where state leaders want similar Confederate statues removed and now this protest over yet another statue of Lee in Virginia. Of course, groups like Sons of the Confederacy have taken massive offense at the idea of removing statues to their dearly departed: the arguments are somewhat muddied by the controversial claim that these wartime “losers” were technically still American citizens. But it’s worth noting that monuments tend to glorify something worth remembering: even during the Civil War, it was a war nobody wanted to remember or relive.
Some of my friends have argued it’s important to preserve history/heroes and respect states’ rights. I don’t disagree with these values. What I do disagree with is how the values are manifest in fallacy. But don’t delude yourselves: removing every public statue of a white slave-holding dude or white terrorist icon is not the the solution to racism we’ve all been awaiting - that’s a neoliberal post-racial myth. I do think it’s important to start somewhere. Symbolically it makes sense to clear blatantly derogatory symbols, but it’s not going to remove the ideology that feeds them.
In April I spent four days in North Korea. One of the striking features of our Pyongyang tour was the immense gravity and grandeur of various monuments built to either fictional North Korean wartime victories or to their republic’s fictional gods, founders and leaders, Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il. The nationalistic idolization of these two and the current leader, Kim Jong-un, is a bizarre study unto itself but the point is, these are almost the only types of statues and portraits decorating the city, and there are dozens. Here we see “The Myths of the Kindly Kims” where each leader is portrayed as a benevolent strategist, smart and visionary, creating a utopian society that ultimately wants nothing more than to reunited with its Southern counterpart and assert global dominance while of course, their citizens starve to death in the countryside and in prison camps. Of course, because this is the dynasty of who rules the nation, naturally the winners write history.
Around the city, everything from the massive Sisters Reunification arch which preemptively charades as a reunification of the Korean peninsula, to the War Monument, a gravely cemetery-type lawn of gargantuan statues commemorate and a graveyard full of captured US Imperialist war vessels, serves alternative history to visitors, with firm denouncement of the treachery and insidiousness of North Korea’s enemies: primarily, the United States and the United Nations. Wartime is controversial, and certainly I have some opinions about US provocation and entanglement in foreign wars, Korea no exception. However, there’s something eerie as an American citizen walking through a captured US Naval vessel riddled with bullet holes and hearing a North Korean soldier recite a list of war crimes and treasonous acts against the country. As an American, I’m not used to losing. But as controversial as it is, this war trophy is a proud monument the North Koreans flaunt as proof of their excellent war records and global leadership. Naturally, as a closed kingdom, the government can dictate its own history and facts without regard to the outside world, leaving its people ignorant to the controversy and basking in what it believes to be unparalleled military prowess. It’s a denial of facts, even the hard ones, and the controversial ones, and the country’s monuments to mythical victories only enhance the surreal, somber, and apocalyptic vibe of the Hermit Kingdom.
George Orwell’s 1984 famously touts “Ignorance is Strength,” which Salon magazine quoted, saying it “materializes in the administration’s weaponized attempt not only to rewrite history but also to obliterate it.” In other words, it’s dangerous to propagate untrue or incomplete angles of history. The way you can test this is if the history being told is much more “hard” than it is “glorious.”
In breaking down “the myth of the kindly General Lee,” The Atlantic broke down a lot of the myths of my own American history upbringing: one that unintentionally but surely built up some of my unconscious white privilege and conservatively theocratic [Baptist] politics. Some of my Southern white/religious history textbooks always took care to acknowledge the goodness of Lincoln, the emancipation of the slaves, and the victory of the Northern Union army. But my books never denounced the Confederacy or described graphic details of what slavery really is. In fact, they more or less distracted from the whole horror with lengthy sidebars of the noble Christian virtues of many Southern slaveholders including Lee, Stonewall Jackson, and President of the Confederacy Jefferson Davis, all of whom were painfully “Bound By Duty” to fight for their homeland, the South, keeping slaves as an unfortunate byproduct of homegrown loyalty. Obviously, and this is omnisciently clear while reading the Atlantic piece, white people have NO IDEA what slavery was/is (and we need constant reminders).
The Vice President of the Confederacy, Alexander Stephens, made clear the cause of the South in his infamous Cornerstone Speech, given in Savannah in 1861: “The great truth, I repeat, upon which our system rests, is the inferiority of the African. The enemies of our institutions ignore this truth. They set out with the assumption that the races are equal; that the negro is equal to the white man. If their premises were correct, their conclusions would be legitimate. But their premises being false, their conclusions are false also. Most of that fanatical spirit at the North on this subject, which in its zeal without knowledge, would upturn our society and lay waste our fair country, springs from this false reasoning.” To be clear: we white people have dehumanized an entire race of people and maligned them in the most horrible ways, justified with all manner of evil falsities (religious ones not exempt)…and the Southern United States broke away in order to further support this. We should already realize, acknowledge, and testify this truth. Anything other than acknowledgement that systemic slavery of Africans in America is wrong. But hey, this is 2017. In the words of William Faulkner: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” (By the way my rant about slavery is not a rabbit trail: I just feel the need to wholeheartedly impart why monuments to it are so very racist and inhumane. Because sometimes in 2017 we [speaking for the YTs] forget what slavery actually was and how there is no excuse for it and how these symbols of it are triggering and wrong…and incite riots of white supremacist terrorist).
How does one convince another that symbols, like language, can be dangerous if touted in the wrong ways? That history is important, but that it shouldn’t be repeated? That freedom of speech is only freedom if it’s available to all? As Ulysses S. Grant said: “The right of revolution is an inherent one. When people are oppressed by their government, it is a natural right they enjoy to relieve themselves of the oppression, if they are strong enough, either by withdrawal from it, or by overthrowing it and substituting a government more acceptable. But any people or part of a people who resort to this remedy, stake their lives, their property, and every claim for protection given by citizenship — on the issue. Victory, or the conditions imposed by the conqueror — must be the result.” By removing Confederate statues from public grounds, we’re not erasing history or “white culture” (whatever that is): but monuments to inhumane or unjust or racist entities are historical relics undeserving of relevancy on our public streets. They belong solely in a museum, with detailed explanation of why they’re there.
Additionally, these monuments have nothing to do with states’ rights vs. federal ability. Because of popular outcry against Confederate monuments around the country (which, by the way, up until this Spring included a monument to a white supremacist terrorist group), the mayor of New Orleans advised a city council vote, which passed. Same in Arizona, where lawmakers and community groups have rallied to protest the monuments. This isn’t federal mandate, if that’s what’s keeping you up at night.
It’s important to remember history in all its ugly truth. The point, though, is to learn from it and move away from the systems that deny human rights and create slavery and prevent healthcare and education. Destroying monuments and erasing slavery from history textbooks, like they’re doing in Texas, is not the answer. But we can hold onto history and learn from it without glorifying the ugliness of it, and, more proactively, we need to address the whitewashed myths of “kindly” leaders who oppressed and enforced under the guise of godliness and a silver tongue. Let’s also talk not only about slavery, but about terrible fallout of criminalization and the rise of the prison system to replace slavery in the Galaxy of Racism. Move the statues to museums. In textbooks, talk about the ugliness of war and the horrors of slavery, not the glory of slaveholders. Learning about history should be a means to an end: a productive, progressive move from ignorance into issues like human rights, environmental justice, even technology. If in middle school I’d been learning about issues in a way that informed my critical thinking for now I’d be in much better shape.
As a TV producer, I was once part of a scout that considered filming at a tavern in rural Virginia. We were getting desperate to find an appropriate location on deadline, and this place on the river sounded perfect. When we arrived to check it out, however, a Confederate flag flew proudly out front. With barely a second glance at the place, my fellow producers turned heel and left. I was particularly proud of my fellow producers that day because no matter how maniupaltive TV magic can be and how desperate times call for desperate measures on a production schedule, the Confederate flag is such a darkly controversial symbol that we couldn’t risk even filming around it, or even supplying business to an establishment that flies it.
A few days after the piece in The Atlantic, the New York Times Travel section posted a photo of a statue in Kelly Ingram Park, Birmingham, AL, memorializing the four innocent victims who were shot in the 16th Street Baptist Church in 1963. While commemorating an absolutely horrific incident in the American canon of racist history, the sculpture is also a delightful rendering of the girls as they were alive: full of playfulness and joy and youth. It doesn’t trivialize or falsify their deaths, but it celebrates their too-brief lives in a way that does not celebrate their murder, or trigger outrage. It’s an emotional juxtaposition of happiness and sadness at what motivates it, but it captures the essence of humanity — both beauty and tragedy — and seems to me to be the most fitting answer to this entire controversy. More sculptures like this in public parks, please.
As for the historical bastions to slavery and treason? I hear the Smithsonian is always looking for donors.