Confederate monuments and white landscapes

It has been less than a week since white nationalists and white supremacists gathered in Charlottesville to protest plans to remove a statue of General Robert E. Lee, just one of the many Confederate monuments throughout the state. With a mounting push to remove them amid ongoing conversations about race in the United States, and with an upcoming gubernatorial election in which one Republican primary election candidate made preserving Confederate monuments a centerpiece of his campaign, the issue is unlikely to fade away in Virginia. The state may be at the center of today’s conversations, just like it was at the center of the Civil War, but it’s hardly the only area grappling with the legacy of the Civil War and its memorialization. New Orleans removed the last of its Confederate monuments last spring. This week, Baltimore city officials removed four Confederate monuments while citizens in Durham, NC took matters into their own hands, pulling down the city’s Confederate Soldiers Monument statue. Donald Trump of course weighed in, Tweeting, “Sad to see the history and culture of our great country being ripped apart with the removal of our beautiful statues and monuments,” and I want to spend some time examining the defenses he’s parroting.

As supporters of the continued public display of Confederate monuments argue, they do commemorate history and culture. But that is exactly why we should be removing them: they commemorate a history and culture that rested on the oppression and abuse of non-whites. I agree that we can’t–and shouldn’t–erase or ignore that history, but we also don’t need to maintain highly visible stages for its celebration. What such monuments represent constitutes a very narrow view of American history that excises the experiences of a wide range of historical actors, particularly African Americans. Perpetuating that narrow view in which the Confederacy stands in for a more inclusive Southern history denies black Americans a proportional role in the shared narrative of US history that links diverse Americans together–it effectively excludes the African American community from the American body politic by pretending they either have no history of their own in America, or that their experience is subordinate to a (Confederate) history worthy of commemoration. Historical narratives enable people to make claims to the land and resources and social institutions around which that history developed, that play a role in a given narrative. Confederate monuments imply that only those who share a commitment to and role in the history and culture they represent can access those resources.

But to my eye, the significance of this debate is even more explicit when these monuments include statues of human figures–Confederate military personnel, politicians, and slaveholders, whether specific individuals or generalized representations. Ties between bodies and the landscapes they inhabit have long been cited to support claims to land and its resources. Eighteenth-century European colonists frequently portrayed Native bodies as naked and mobile, assessments that reinforced the notion that Indians did not belong on lands that Europeans saw as cultivated (clothed) and settled, and should therefore be removed in favor of more compatible, civilized, European bodies. English colonists in particular argued that only successful permanent inhabitation upheld claims to land in America, and that Indians as well as competing European colonists had failed to establish ownership as English colonists had. Installing statues of individual Confederates exercises a similar logic, establishing white bodies as representations of an American history that gives one group of US citizens a preeminent claim to the lands a more diverse community actually occupies. By this standard, bodies defined as “non-white” don’t belong because they’re associated with distinct histories that aren’t attached to the physical space of the U.S.

Both of these processes inherent in Confederate commemoration–entrenching a particular historical narrative, and representing it with bodies of Confederate heroes–literally mark the American landscape as the exclusive possession of white Americans. In other words, Confederate monuments encode white supremacy on an American landscape in place of the segregated landscape that has been gradually eroded over the course of more than a century, from the Civil War through the Civil Rights Movement and beyond. 

[Added 8/19/17] To communicate to people of color that they’re excluded from American life and institutions, monuments are placed in spaces that are centers of public and civic life in the United States: A statue of Roger Taney, who authored the majority opinion in Dred Scott, at Maryland’s State House; Robert E. Lee on the University of Virginia campus; the entirety of Monument Avenue in Richmond; a Confederate soldier at the Loudon County (Va.) Courthouse. Collectively, these signal white supremacy in political, educational, civic, and legal settings, respectively.

Somehow, aesthetics also enter into this argument, Trump Tweeting, “Also the beauty that is being taken out of our cities, towns and parks will be greatly missed and never able to be comparably replaced!” The notion that you can’t or shouldn’t change a designed landscape because it is aesthetically pleasing or itself has a long history stems from a conservative impulse to preserve that landscape as it is. It aims to permanently entrench the history and culture that landscape with its monuments represents. The ugliness in Trump’s words is the implication that there is no greater beauty to be had than what already exists. I have to believe most Americans don’t want these monuments “comparably replaced”–they want something better.

*Sorry about the lack of pictures. All I could think to include were pictures of Confederate monuments, and no…

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