|Vandalism as an act of justice.|
Early last week, I tweeted angrily, as a person tends to do on Twitter. It was this image of a defaced Confederate war memorial, Silent Sam. It’s a memorial to 321 alumni of University of North Carolina - Chapel Hill, who died fighting for the Confederacy in the American Civil War. It was erected in 1913, and the United Daughters of the Confederacy was a major funder.
On it, graffiti is written “Who is Sandra Bland?”
On July 4 of this year, the same statue was apparently vandalized with “KKK” and “Murderer.”
I’m rather happy about that.
But my friendly antagonist offered a rejoinder, that my disgust for the Confederacy needed some better justification. I at least should make a more detailed argument for my disgust than the expression of disgust. As well, some of my comments did run together the slave economy with Jim Crow, two materially different social regimes.
In DM a while later, Steve and I discussed the genuine complexity of Southern heritage. Our colleague Jim Collier is the descendant of a Confederate general, Tex Rosser. And there was an entire culture of anti-racism in the South as well, particularly expressed in its experimental literature of the twentieth century – Mississippi’s William Faulkner, Georgia’s Flannery O’Connor, Kentucky’s Robert Penn Warren, Tennessee’s John Crowe Ransom.
The biggest such critical Southern literary voice in the news recently was, of course, Harper Lee of Alabama. Americans, and Mockingbird fans generally, felt a strange sense of shock and sometimes even betrayal on learning that she had always conceived the beloved Atticus Finch as a much more complicated character than the simple first story depicted. Both Go Set a Watchman and its cultural reception made a pointed critique of how Americans understand or ignore the racist elements of their culture and history.
So my visceral disgust at Confederate war memorials appeared to have ignored this long tradition of critique. Southern culture is about more than racism. But the question, for me, remains: What precisely in Southern culture does a Confederate war memorial like Silent Sam express?
|You don't mess with Harriet Tubman.|
The statue's primary funders were a group of propagandists for the Lost Cause, the idealized, whitewashed vision of the Confederacy as a beautiful society that was crushed under Unionist military invasion and cultural oppression. The United Daughters of the Confederacy were slavery apologists.
Because you can't deny how horrifying slavery was. Millions were worked to death in gruelling conditions, or died of disease in trans-Atlantic travel. Families were routinely broken up, slaves were denied the right to practice their religion and culture. Blacks were dehumanized and treated as property as an essential element of the culture for centuries.
And no matter how much groups like United Daughters of the Confederacy tried to say it was about other causes, the secession of the South and the resulting Civil War was their attempt to preserve the slave economy. Yes, it did have to do with state's rights, particularly their right to maintain a slave economy.
So what about my contention that there's continuity between (white settlement-1865) this slow-moving economy of monetized genocide called slave agriculture, (1865-1960s) the brutal, lynching-enforced caste system of Jim Crow, and (present) the culture of underground white supremacists and habitual police violence against blacks?
I don’t deny the obvious differences. I can’t. But there is one important commonality: the concept of race, particularly a conception of the white and black races as divided by essential caste. That would be white supremacy.
It's a philosophical matter, a common presumption underlying the motives of human behaviour in individuals from Christopher Columbus to Jefferson Davis to Dylann Roof. It’s the presumption that another group of people can be set apart from your own by some obvious characteristic and for that reason treated as less worthy of human rights than you.
|To answer the graffiti artist's question, this is|
So I’ll continue to be disgusted by monuments to Silent Sam or Robert E. Lee because they romanticize and erase a stain on American history as torrid as the Nazi period in Germany, or the many genocides against indigenous peoples in Canada.
I’d much prefer to see more monuments across the United States to genuine heroes in its history who fought against slavery, white supremacy, and racism. There should be more monuments to revolutionaries like the abolitionist John Brown, or Underground Railroad leader Harriet Tubman. Frederick Douglass should be given honour throughout America's education systems as one of the country’s great heroes.
And I’ll always be happy to see that someone has defaced a memorial whose purpose is to romanticize white supremacy and dilute its terror. Especially when it’s in the name of a contemporary victim of that terror.