Many modern cultural touchstones have roots in historical events or figures that are tainted by great evils like racism, human slavery, or unjust war. My sense is that societies either purposely obscure these roots or forget them in order to suppress the cognitive dissonance. I believe that this process has not halted with our enlightened present but is an ongoing exercise of our human nature. I have proudly stood at attention many times for the American national anthem, and will continue to do so. I could have named its composer by memory, but I had no knowledge of either its grim origins in the War of 1812, or the British recruitment of slaves against America’s racial tyranny of that period. Those finer points may have been deliberately omitted in high school history. I don’t know.
On the one hand, there is the sense that history and meaning can and must be reinterpreted and reconstructed endlessly. If we wanted to re-interpret the national anthem as a tribute to a nation built upon liberal egalitarianism, universal brotherhood, human dignity and freedom…could we? Of course! We could be unstained by racism in principle no matter how ugly our actions in historical practice; we only had to contextualize it and reconstruct it with a suitable discursive lens. We could acknowledge our past failures while upholding the sound foundations of the republic. The Suffragettes and MLK would leverage those very foundations to do great things in this country. Progress would move us along the right side of history. The past would have no hold on us.
On the other hand, there is the sense that figures such as Woodrow Wilson or John Calhoun or Francis Scott Key were totally committed in their lives’ works to the maintenance and expansion of the edifice of white supremacy. They seem untroubled by the unjust killing and subjugation of non-white peoples. An honest appraisal of their lives cannot ignore this central current running through them. Can we (or should we even attempt to) separate them from their deeds?
A good friend shares her excellent travelogues via Facebook, and recently featured Jackson Square from the city of New Orleans. Today, local people and tourists of all creeds and colors take beautiful photographs in this iconic part of the city’s French Quarter. Back in 1811, after a slave revolt against the brutal planter aristocracy, three slaves were publicly hanged in the Place d’Armes, now known as Jackson Square. Across the Place d’Armes, the majestic St. Louis Cathedral stood watch then as now. I found myself asking whether I could enjoy myself in the square or appreciate its beauty, with the statue of Andrew Jackson still riding above it and the image of a public hanging and a jeering crowd firmly in my mind’s eye. Perhaps this is unfair — the past is past, right? And yet there is something unsatisfactory about this state of affairs, one where what happened in Jackson Square in 1811 has nothing to do with the church that still stands there and the statue of Jackson that rides over the Place d’Armes of 2016. Have we designed our collective forgetting?
I cannot cast a dark cloud over Jackson Square, or over the entirety of the Old South, concerned about how those people down there can bear the weight of what they or their forefathers have done. We must all reckon with the past because we all inherit customs and culture and tradition, what Chesterton famously called the “democracy of the dead.” For a great and terrible period in our history, this democracy was built atop an economy of enslavement and expropriation. I come from Scandinavian farmers in the Great Plains who immigrated and built farmsteads on the prairie, decades after the Dakota War of 1862. Did I give much thought to Indian lands as I went about my farm chores as a kid? Rarely if ever, and even if I did, my thoughts would not be worth much. The material reality looms over us all. My farm family and many others worked and flourished in a world built out of the blood and broken bones of Indians and settlers and soldiers. It is only coincidence and providence, and not our own special virtue, that took us from Norway to a peaceful farmstead in North Dakota. This is our privilege.
The great scythe of white supremacy has swung for over 200 years in this country, robbing the poor in Philadelphia, crushing neighborhoods in Pittsburgh, redlining slums in Chicago, and building the architecture of mass incarceration and white wealth accumulation. The South cannot alone shoulder the guilt and burden of judgment. This original sin touches us all.
Let us return to Jackson Square. What shall we do? Tear down the old statues and buildings tied to such great evil? Torch the old plantations? Expropriate the expropriators (or their descendants)? Are our only compelling options for dealing with a tainted past to either preserve a ghastly museum like Auschwitz or simply burn it all to the ground? Should we write a new national anthem? There is great evil embedded in the status quo, just as there was evil in the Russian autocracy in 1917, and in the French monarchy in 1793. But one only has to look at the violence that proceeded from the Bolsheviks’ October Revolution or the French Reign of Terror to see what demons are unleashed by revolutionaries who are willing to rip the world into conformity with their imagination. To quote Chesterton again, they are the “small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about.” I am not opposed to judgment — in fact it is morally imperative that we judge well! But we must judge ourselves first and most harshly. We must resist both naive romanticization and reflexive dismissal of the past, lest we revolt against everything until there is nothing. This is the imperfect and ongoing work of civil society: to resist the twin temptation of ancestor-worship and collective forgetting.
We should burn with pride for our great grandparents’ valor and virtues. We should burn with anger for their failings, seeking rapprochement out of justice and charity with those who live with the consequences. True justice will require that the powerful give something up. We should not whitewash our past by hiding the foundations of the world they built. I hope that the statues of Confederate generals and the buildings and squares named for rapacious American statesmen continue to stand, but only if they serve to humble us. Jackson Square could be one of a thousand signs saying, “We honor those who fought against our community when it was wrong.” They are ours in their greatness and terrible weakness like this country is ours — and so we love them.