President Trump accomplished something this week that must elate him. Most days, his name will come up at some point. Now, for the first time since November 9th, every friend or stranger you meet brings him up before saying “Hello”.
I’m housesitting in Brooklyn, and a neighbor chatted with me while I watered the garden Wednesday. A middle-aged woman from Louisiana, she was appalled by Trump but troubled by the removal of Confederate monuments.
John Brown is her hero. As a girl, she loved him twice as much because she thought he and James Brown were the same person. She still loved him for his ideals after she separated them in her mind. She calls Southern plantations concentration camps. We should preserve them as we preserve Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen, so coming generations can learn from them. The monuments serve the same purpose. A former schoolteacher, she thinks kids aren’t learning about the Civil War. The monuments could spark their interest.
She asked, “How can we ever heal if we don’t know our history?”
I asked, “How healing it is for black Americans to walk by statues celebrating men who fought a war to keep them as slaves?” She said she’s not celebrating anything, she just doesn’t want the past to be forgotten.
I said that a statue of a general with his sword heroically cutting the air can only be a celebration of the man. These aren’t historical markers. They’re monuments. We put up monuments for two reasons: to always remember and to never forget. We always want to remember the first flight of the Wright brothers. We never want to forget the massacre at Wounded Knee. These are “always remember” monuments. They proclaim in our public space that this is the best and noblest measure of our inheritance.
She didn’t think it was such a big deal. I didn’t mention that two bleached-white Americans probably shouldn’t decide how everyone else should feel. I tried Godwin’s patience instead. I almost never play the Nazi card, but if American slavery isn’t a comparable evil, what is?
I told her that most Confederate monuments went up in the early and middle Twentieth Century. At the height of Jim Crow. I doubted they were really historical remembrances, especially in places that weren’t part of the Confederacy. More likely, they sent a contemporary message – a message of intimidation to the black population and of solidarity to the white.
That seemed far-fetched to her, so I brought the idea up-to-date. A monument dedicated in 1925 was erected 60 years after the war ended. World War II ended in 1945. Would we wonder at their motivations if crowds gathered all over Germany to commemorate Nazi memorials in 2005? Would Jews living in Berlin have a right to complain if they had to walk past triumphal statues of Goebbels and Göring and Bormann and Hitler every day?
Members of The Tribe comprise a large part of this neighborhood. Her eyes widened as she thought of her friends, and I think she saw a different perspective. We moved on to lighter topics.
I thought about it more later. I looked at a list of Confederate memorials. I sharpened my impression of how far removed the memorializers were from the smoke of the battlefields. I plotted a graph.1
It has two bumps. They map neatly onto the first Great Migration and the Civil Rights Era.
I think my suspicions were reasonable. How many people in 1955 remembered great-great-grandpa and wanted to honor his war service? How many wanted to say they may have lost the war, but that doesn’t mean their neighbors can use the same water fountain? I can plot the graph for that in my head.
The greatest frenzy of Confederate stoneworking happened in the 1910s. For our parallel, that would have meant that the greatest number of Nazi memorials went up in the 1990s. Think back to the 90s. Whether you thought they were a good idea or not, you would have had to wonder why now?
In 1935, the United Daughters of the Confederacy built a dormitory on a university campus in Nashville to provide free housing to descendants of Confederate soldiers. On our timeline, that would be a German university opening “Hitlerjugend Hall” in 2015. If that sounds too harsh, the UDC were at the forefront of whitewashing Southern history to say the Civil War had little to do with slavery. They were the reason that more than a century after the war Virginia schools used a textbook which said:
The regard that master and slaves had for each other made plantation life happy and prosperous. Life among the Negroes of Virginia in slavery times was generally happy. The Negroes went about in a cheerful manner making a living for themselves and for those for whom they worked…
A black prospective student would have felt as unwelcome at the sight of Confederate Memorial Hall as a Jew would seeing Hitlerjugend Hall – if she could have set foot on campus.
Inflicting these glorifications of their oppressors on African Americans isn’t a history lesson. It’s a hate crime. If your ancestors died for an ignoble cause, honor your ancestors, not the cause. The Russians had the good sense to consign Stalin to the scrap heap. We seem keen to let them meddle in our affairs. Fine. Let’s follow their example and take these eyesores down.
- I threw this together quickly with a slipshod methodology. I wrote a script that counted the number of lines in the Wikipedia List of monuments and memorials of the Confederate States of America which contained the strings “186”, “187”, “188”, etc. I dropped the 2000s because they were polluted by references to controversies over the monuments. I believe it’s good enough for use here because it matches the curve of the rigorous chart constructed by The Southern Poverty Law Center. ↩