Monuments to the heroes of the Deep South – and many closer to home – have been rewriting the history of black oppression for too long, writes Dani Garavelli
In 1993, my husband and I took a road trip through the Deep South. After paying our respects at Graceland, we followed the Mississippi River down the highway through the cradle of the Civil War until we reached Louisiana.
This was one of several US road trips we made in the early years of our marriage and I have clear memories of almost everywhere we went. But Mississippi is mostly a blur of battlesites and generals, maps and memorials, strategies and sieges.
Looking at the map, I know we went to Vicksburg, scene of a major Confederate defeat and home to 1,400 monuments. I remember standing at canons overlooking trenches, but I don’t remember gaining any historical perspective. The obsession with military manoeuvres overshadowed any deeper analysis of cause and/or consequence, and the even-handed treatment of the slain on both sides seemed to draw a false moral equivalence between north and south.
Today, such monuments have become flashpoints in a raging culture war. The catalyst was footage of Dylann Roof – who killed nine black worshippers in a Charleston church – burning the US flag and waving a Confederate one. As racial tensions grew, the clamour for the eradication of Confederate statues increased. More than a dozen have already been removed.
It was the toppling of Confederate general, Robert E Lee, from his pedestal in Emancipation Park in Charlottesville, Virginia, that attracted the biggest backlash, with hundreds of swastika-wielding white supremacists gathering to protest. At some point, a car was driven into counter-protesters, killing Heather Heyer.
President Donald Trump’s reaction was predictable. First, by referring to violence “on both sides”, he drew a false moral equivalence between those endorsing racism and those opposing it. Then, in reference to the pulling down of statues, he tweeted: “Sad to see the history and culture of our great country being ripped apart. You can’t change history, but you can learn from it.”
The president’s refusal to condemn the white supremacists has attracted widespread condemnation, but 86 per cent of Republicans and two-thirds of white Americans agree with him about the need to retain monuments. Some believe the destruction of statues is tantamount to a whitewashing of the past.
But history is less a chronology of objective facts than a jumble of competing narratives struggling for ascendancy. The very act of erecting a statue – of choosing which public figures should be revered and which forgotten – is inherently political and a means of exerting authority.
The erection of statues, or the changing of street names, can also be an expression of identity. Thus, the decision in the late 1980s to rename St George’s Place, Nelson Mandela Place was not only a gesture of solidarity with the victims of apartheid, it was also a statement on how Glasgow wanted to be perceived by the rest of the world.
The cliché is that history is always written by the winners, but in the Deep South, it was written by the losers. The glut of Confederate monuments that grew up in the wake of the defeat in 1865 weren’t testaments to past failings, but an attempt to construct an alternative truth known as “the Lost Cause”.
The Lost Cause is a recasting of the Confederacy’s role from an ignominious attempt to keep slavery to a heroic battle for the rights of states to secede and the preservation of “Southern values”. The statues of Lee and the other generals do not show them chastened or cowed, but riding into battle. They are not conciliatory, they are an assertion of continued supremacy. And so it panned out; slavery may have been abolished, but oppression endured in the form of the Jim Crow laws and its impact can still be felt across the country.
That this injustice should be set in stone, or cast in bronze, and flaunted daily in the faces of those who are still suffering discrimination is intolerable. Mitch Landrieu, the Mayor of New Orleans, once the biggest slave market in America, put it most eloquently as he defended the decision to remove four statues earlier this year.
“These statues are not just innocent remembrances of a benign history,” he said. “These monuments purposefully celebrate a fictional, sanitised Confederacy; ignoring the death, ignoring the enslavement and the terror that it actually stood for.”
The pulling down of statues is no more a distortion of history than the erecting of them and is often integral to its unfolding. The fall of statues echoes the fall of empires (think Ozymandias) or the fall of regimes (think Saddam Hussein).
A few months ago, I was standing on Karl-Marx-Allee – the sweeping communist era boulevard in east Berlin – at the precise spot where Stalin’s statue used to stand. When Stalin died in March 1953, it was garlanded with flowers and draped in black flags as mourners gathered. Just eight years later, however, the cult of Stalin was renounced and it was dismantled in the middle of the night. The statue’s absence is as much of a cultural marker today as its presence was in the 1950s.
It is because the removal of Lee’s statue represents some bigger shift – a rejection of racism; a desire for greater cohesion – that the backlash from white supremacists has been so vicious. They are angry and defensive because they feel centuries of privilege slipping from their grasp.
Here in the UK, we also have a chequered past to confront. In Glasgow, for example, many city centre streets are named after tobacco merchants who got rich off the backs of slave labour in plantations in the US and West Indies.
The offence may be less flagrant; most visitors will be unaware of the origins of Buchanan Street, Glassford Street, Ingram Street and Dunlop Street. But if we want to atone for the sins of our fathers, then we should stop honouring those who profited from the trade in human beings. This is not wishy-washy liberalism, it’s about deciding what we stand for and then living by those principles.
In the US, where the already cavernous racial gap is widening, the stakes are higher and symbolic gestures more important. Removing the statues won’t heal the divide – of course it won’t. But, while there are Nazis shouting “blood and soil” on the streets, and while the president refuses to denounce them – stripping the parks of Confederate tributes makes a powerful statement about the kind of America civic leaders believe in and the direction in which the country ought to be moving.