Knowing that folks will only read the first 50 words of an internet article before moving on, let me be clear: Confederate monuments should be removed from public grounds like courthouses and state capitols, and placed in statue park museums. They should not be destroyed or defaced.
The recent events in Charlottesville and Durham have sparked personal and online discussions centered around the question of how to handle monuments dedicated to the Civil War dead, the Confederacy, and Confederate leadership. Many of these discussions eventually devolve into something akin to “read a history book” or the condemning of revisionism. Folks freely play with meaning, memory, and truth to push their agenda. People afraid of “erasing” history and minimizing the painful scars of slavery and segregation.
Our landscape is dotted by the Confederacy. There are at least 1,500 Confederate place names in the United States, roughly 700 are monuments and statues, 100 schools, 80 counties, nine official holidays in six states, and 10 military bases.
Confederate memorials are instruments of white power dotting the landscapes of capital buildings, courthouses, and parks. They have meaning, and claiming that meaning is “heritage” or “pride” is as disingenuous as claiming flying the Nazi flag the day after the actions of Neo-Nazis in Charlottesville was to honor “its origins as an Indian religious symbol,” just as Joe Love, A Gaston County NC man claimed.
Context of the Memorials:
Other people have written about this subject and have done so much better than I could ever do. The Southern Poverty Law Center has a short paper entitled Whose Heritage: Public Symbols of the Confederacy that succinctly discusses the two major periods when Confederate monuments were built – 1900 to 1920, and 1954-1968. (These are two internet articles on the same subject from the New York Times and and PBS).
Our present-day view of these monuments is tinted by a Victorian nostalgia and a reconciliationist memory. This is problematic because it leads to people to not see that the monuments were purposely constructed to create an alternative past to legitimize white supremacy. The Confederate monuments were built during a period when blacks were disenfranchised, segregation legalized, and biracial governments were snuffed out. The legal and systematic emergence of white supremacy was not merely a coincidence that occurred alongside the building of the monuments. Rather, the monuments were in many ways a celebration of the reemergence of white supremacy – an ideal the Confederacy had fought to protect.
What to do with the Statues
My idea stems from a semester abroad I spent in the Spring semester of 2000. I studied in Budapest, Hungary, an old country with a troubled past. The bulk of the Hungarian twentieth century was under communism, and communists loved to build monuments and statues. Some saw it at propaganda, others saw it as part of a new culture where art played a central role in everyday people’s lives. Whatever it was – the result was monuments occupying the landscape. These monuments were beacons of the political and ideological culture of the communist era.
The city of Budapest decided to move the communist era statues out of the city and into a Statue or Memento Park Museum. They were not defaced or destroyed. Rather, they were preserved and presented to the public with context. Doing so prevented the destruction of history and artifacts, removed statues that many found offensive, and acknowledged and preserved Hungary’s history and memory.
I propose that each state in the US does something similar, starting with North Carolina. All Confederate statues and memorials should be removed from public property like courthouses and city squares, and placed in a sculpture/statue park. A museum should be built and historical interpreters present to help put the statues in context for the public.