The Confederate Collaboration of West Point

Following the events in Charlottesville, Virginia in which a united left of socialists and anarchists pushed back the fascist menace that murdered Heather Heyer, a groundswell of emancipatory activity continues to grow. The toppling of the Confederate Soldiers Memorial in Durham, North Carolina has sounded the death knell for any and all displays of Confederate aggrandizement in the United States as well as abroad. Yet, the shadow of the Confederacy and its efforts to preserve slavery is not limited to the southern United States. From Seattle to Pennsylvania, the embodiment of white supremacy and racial violence against black people can be found just around the corner. But in this piece, I would like to focus on a specific place that preserves the Confederate legacy not often-discussed: my alma mater, the United States Military Academy. In every corner of West Point, New York, one can readily discover white supremacist iconography and visual rhetoric. There are some that stand out more than others. As we shall see, these sordid displays of the worst aspects of American history reify a profoundly racist culture that has existed since the inception of this country. In military parlance, my task here is to raise consciousness through the identification of these various memorials, tributes, and pieces of art; my purpose, however, is for these vile displays of racial oppression to be cast into the dustbin of history once and for all.

Let us begin with a brief tour. Traveling from Highland Falls, through the main entrance of Thayer Gate, one of the first structures that greets you is the hulking Lee Barracks, named of course for the most famous of slaveowning Confederate generals, both a graduate of West Point and its former superintendent, Robert E. Lee. Just across the way from that you see Reconciliation Plaza Memorial, featuring a granite sculpture of Lee’s head alongside a sappy, falsified, ahistorical narrative (more on this later). Thereafter, the cadet library, Jefferson Hall, prominently displays a nearly six-foot-tall painting of Lee. Perhaps most egregious of all, however, is the Lee painting located in the residence of the Superintendent of USMA (Quarters 100), in plain sight for any and all visitors. Travel in any direction on the campus, and sooner or later you’ll be confronted with the Confederacy. Not just visually, either. The West Point Band routinely plays cadets into the mess hall to the tune of “The Bonnie Blue Flag,” an 1861 march celebrating the secessionists’ will to preserve slavery. The Confederate situation at West Point does not just raise a question of mere theatrics or rhetorical flourishes, but of politics and history. This is a war of position.

There can be no room to abide the sordid legacy of the Confederacy. While neo-fascism continues to spread in the United States, from the likes of alt-right ghouls such as Richard Spencer to the latest incarnation of white ethno-nationalist militias, fascism has already been here for a long time. Any semblance of honoring the figures and movement that sought to permanently shackle human beings as property only further emboldens the far right. Of course, the centrists, liberals, and conservatives who fetishize an abstract, non-material idea of free speech plead that the removal and/or destruction of Confederate monuments is an erasure of history. This is pure intellectual dishonesty. The United States Civil War was fought over slavery. Full stop. Therefore, we must take down the structures which reify a profoundly racist legacy, if we are to have any sense of history at all. This endeavor is our collective historical moment.

There can be no reconciliation with the Confederate States of America. Here, I would also like to emphasize that the condemnation of these monuments has everything to do with the Confederates’ being slaveowners, and nothing to do with disloyalty to the United States. Historically speaking, West Point’s Reconciliation Plaza evokes a white supremacist narrative that served as the climax of D.W. Griffith’s silent film The Birth of a Nation, in which white males of the North and the South reunited in order to carry out retributive violence against black people. That white people desired revenge against black people speaks to the grotesque fantasy perpetuated by this film. This “reconciliation” mythology, alongside Jim Crow laws, and the so-called Lost Cause of the Confederacy, is one of the many forces which advocated the continued subjugation of black people in America. We bear witness to the consequences of the reconciliationist narrative every day. Is it any wonder that 16 of my classmates were viciously castigated, both in the press and at USMA itself, following the release of a photograph in which they displayed their pride as black women? Howard Zinn upheld the commitment that “you can’t be neutral on a moving train.” Never before have his words echoed in such a thunderous fashion. We thus come to a related historical problematic arising from choosing the side of emancipation in this matter: the vast majority of the founders of the United States were white, slaveowning, propertied males. For example, where does this place the legacy of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson? If you have chosen the side of liberation in this matter, then the answer becomes clear.

Symbolic victories are important. What happened in Durham was not just optics. It emboldened others to further the fight against the racist legacy of the Confederacy (and in turn, the United States). When we efface, topple, and destroy the monuments of oppression, we reach into the very mind of our subjugators and affirm our immovable presence. Our desires for equality and freedom requires collective action and work far beyond the scope of toppling monuments; but these small victories are still critical. I and many others have confronted the administration of USMA regarding the Confederate iconography for a number of years now. They continue to drag their feet. Enough is enough. Whether you are a soldier, cadet, or civilian, the judgment of history is upon us. To cling to an imagined objectivity or neutrality is to remain a coward. It is high time we come together and dismantle these racist structures, both in word, but more importantly, in deed. As for how we might carry out our endeavors, I believe that another West Point graduate sets the proper example: William Tecumseh Sherman — relentless, persistent action in the pursuit of victory. Until our demands are met, we continue the long march.