What a stinker of a year! 2020 has earned its place in the history books. Take your pick of a handful of crises: presidential impeachment, rising sea levels, a record five straight hottest summers in history, a worldwide pandemic that has killed 120,000 Americans in 3-1/2 months, a federal government in utter disarray, and police hammering and brutalizing citizens who chose to march against racism.
One bright note: people are coming together to fight the rampant inequalities that exist between whites and people of color. It is an exciting, hopeful time. There is much to be changed, and a big opportunity to make important strides before the momentum fades.
In this post I’m concerned about the efforts people are making that is regressive. Specifically, I’m afraid that if we try to correct the wrongs of the past by abolishing the evidence, we risk a kind of collective, self-serving amnesia.
Over recent weeks, a lot of confederate statues and monuments have been torn down. This week, statues of slave owners like Andrew Jackson and Thomas Jefferson have been taken down. I sympathize with the outrage behind this destruction, but I think it’s a mistake to tear them down. Tag them for what they are, give them context, place them in perspective, and if necessary, consign them to a special place for monuments of their kind, drape them in black with a plaque explaining why they were erected, but don’t erase them.
Erasing the past is a mistake; we need evidence of our errors, no matter how painful. How else do subsequent generations avoid our mistakes. Hiding statues of slaveowners and traitors simply hides the evidence. Any historian will tell you that it’s the privilege of victors, but not a solution to error or atrocity. Don’t get me wrong, I’d like to see a hundred statues of African Americans erected for every confederate statue in existence. Let’s put Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman on monuments that directly face Washington and Jefferson. Let them stand in opposition; the national dialogue will be richer for it.
But if you remove the evidence, some will deny that it ever existed. We keep Auschwitz, Dachau, and Anne Frank’s house on display for that reason. Andrew Jackson deserves the same moral scrutiny, with a new plaque that details his infamy.
Our children and grandchildren need to see those statues so that they don’t make those same mistakes. And I’m not just talking about the mistakes of the Confederacy; let’s include the mistakes of the victors—those who negotiated peace, but permitted the south to erect statues of its own generals and establish Jim Crow laws. It was a mistake to permit a flag that defended slavery to wave from any statehouse flagpole in the Union, let alone to be waved at NASCAR races or from the tailgates of pickup trucks. To be blunt, the Union, the supposed ‘good guys’ of the Civil War, allowed the dying embers of racism to be fanned and kindled long after the war was won. This mistake should be made as obvious as any other atrocity.
Perhaps, if the North hadn’t permitted the South to erect statues to their generals, flown the flag of their treacherous cause, written laws that subjugated and validated the mistreatment, murder, and economic manipulation of millions of African Americans all the way to the twenty-first century (over seven generations), we wouldn’t need to protest for their rights one hundred and fifty-five years after .