Originally published for iPolitics on August 17, 2017
In 1860, during the most important election in American history, a middle-aged lawyer from St. Louis named Samuel T. Glover gave an address to a crowd of Missouri Republicans. Like most Missouri Republicans in 1860, Glover represented a small but significant faction of antislavery activists within what was then a slave state.
Glover addressed the main tenets of his party’s platform: a devotion to the Union and the Constitution, and preventing slavery’s expansion in the western territories while leaving it alone in the slave states. Unlike most white politicians of that era, however, Glover directly questioned the United States’ devotion to the practice of human bondage.
“The fact is before us, the astounding fact, that the free people of America — the only free people in the world, as we have been wont to call ourselves — are on the eve of becoming a nation of slavery propagandists,” said Glover. “The mission of the American patriot now is to go back to the beginning and reconsider and re-stablish the great principle which the Government set out.”
Voters had a choice, said Glover. They could choose to confront slavery’s role in America and restore the nation’s original principles, or they could allow slavery’s propagandists to secure their hold on the nation forever. Some Americans, by electing Abraham Lincoln to the presidency, chose to confront slavery.
Despite Lincoln’s victory, Americans have always had a peculiar sort of amnesia when it comes to the history of the Civil War. This amnesia has been enabled by pro-slavery propaganda. After the war, neo-Confederates advanced a historical memory that viewed the war as a gallant “Lost Cause,” where heroic southerners fought for their rights against an oppressive central government.
Driven to reassert their racial superiority over blacks in a postwar South, white Southerners — enabled by white Northerners who prioritized national reconciliation over black civil rights — advanced a narrative of slavery that portrayed it as a benevolent, paternalistic institution. Soon after, Confederate statues began appearing throughout the South, becoming the most visible manifestation of this toxic ideology.
The killing of Heather D. Heyer by a white supremacist in Charlottesville, Virginia, forces us to confront this very ideology. Nominally, the rally on Saturday was organized to oppose a plan by local city officials to remove a statue of Robert E. Lee, the top military commander of the Confederacy, from Emancipation Park in Charlottesville.
The question of the legitimacy of Confederate memorials and monuments throughout the United States has aroused controversy and mobilized far-right white supremacist groups to rally in defence of these monuments. It has stirred up anger in cities like New Orleans and Richmond, as local officials begin to make plans to remove other Confederate monuments. In Durham, North Carolina, protesters toppled a statue of a Confederate soldier.
An odd idea percolates throughout much of the coverage of these events — the idea that, by removing these statues, we will somehow lose a sense of history. “How will we know our history,” comes the cry, “if we erase that history?”
But history doesn’t exist as some sort of essential, submerged truth which — once scraped of the barnacles of partiality and bias — will somehow reveal its unblemished hull to us. Historical memory is always a contest over who gets to own it. And for years, the United States has allowed the propaganda of the Confederacy to win that contest.
Most of the statues at the centre of the controversy date not from the war itself, but rather were installed during the height of the Jim Crow era in the South. These visible tools of white supremacy represent the comfortable myths of slavery and secession which Americans have told and retold themselves over the past 150 years. In doing so, these monuments have allowed Americans to forget uncomfortable truths about the place of race and slavery in their nation’s history.
A giant statue of Robert E. Lee astride his horse makes it easier to see him as a larger-than-life, heroic icon. It makes it easier to swallow the image of Bobby Lee as a gentleman warrior, a kind and gentle master to his loyal slaves, who whipped the Yankees through his tactical brilliance. It makes it easier to forget who Lee really was: a wealthy slave-owner so committed to supporting a slaveholding regime that he betrayed his country for it — a man who willingly sacrificed the lives of tens of thousands of Southerners to the cause of human bondage.
Hundreds of statues of lone Confederates dot the American landscape, with inscriptions on their bases claiming “they fought their rights.” Never do they mention that the key right for which these men fought was the right to own another human being in perpetuity.
These statues are the physical representation of an ideology that managed to transform plantations into lush landscapes of moonlight and magnolias, where women in flouncy dresses twirled their parasols while happy darkeys sang sweet hymns in the cotton fields. It’s an ideology that allowed Americans to forget what these places really were — forced labour camps, scenes of violence, rape and murder, where black families were ripped apart and sold in order to sustain a form of capitalism that treated their bodies as commodities.
It is an ideology that shoved to the foreground an image of reconciliation, of white-bearded Union and Confederate veterans shaking hands across a stone wall at Gettysburg in 1913 — while allowing Americans to forget that in the background lay black Americans still segregated social, politically and economically because of the colour of their skin.
It is an ideology that has so infested American society that it has forgotten that the fear of black men which drives modern American policing has its roots in the terror of black violence and insurrection which always simmered underneath the South’s brutal slave regime.
“But these ideologies were a product of their time,” they say. Samuel Glover was a product of his time, too. He grew up in a world were human bondage was deemed acceptable — even necessary for American greatness. Yet he still had the awareness to question America’s relationship to slavery in 1860. Why can’t America in 2017?
Realizing that the dark chapters of their history would never be closed, Germans engage in a daily confrontation with their problematic public memories, so much so that they have developed a specific word for it: Vergangenheitsbewältigung — the “struggle to overcome the negatives of the past”. The first step in confronting America’s own dark past, in recovering those forgotten histories blocked by monuments of metal and stone, is to remove those monuments.
In almost every article about the historical memory of the American Civil War, writers invariably trot out a paraphrase of a line from William Faulkner, the definitive storyteller of the Southern experience: “The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past.”
There is another line of Faulkner’s which resonates more deeply today, one that is quoted far less often. In his novel The Hamlet, one of Faulkner’s characters observes that forgetting is the best method in dealing with the burden of the past, the burden of memory, and the burden of slavery:
“Only thank God men have done learned to forget quick what they ain’t brave enough to cure.”
The problem of forgetting has for too long burdened America, making it unable to come to grips with its own history, preventing the nation from reconsidering and re-establishing the great principles upon which the nation was founded upon.
Tear down these statues. The time for forgetting is over.