A Robert E. Lee monument is dismantled in New Orleans. A torchlight rally in Charlottesville, Virginia to protect another one. A lieutenant governor candidate in Virginia calls for removing all Confederate memorials and renaming all highways and buildings named for Confederate leaders.
William Faulkner had it right. “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
But the effort to erase the memorials to a shameful part of our history may not be as helpful as its supporters imagine. A past submerged is not a past resolved. What we need is more memory – not less.
New Orleans mayor Mitch Landrieu got a lot of deserved attention this week for his eloquent defense of the decision to remove four memorials. He said:
These statues are not just stone and metal. They are not just innocent remembrances of a benign history. These monuments purposefully celebrate a fictional, sanitized Confederacy; ignoring the death, ignoring the enslavement, and the terror that it actually stood for.
Landrieu lamented the prominent place that these memorials had in the city, the way they defined the city’s landscape and imposed a narrative about who was in control.
All of this is true. My white ancestors, who no doubt were part of the masses who contributed to the erection of these memorials in courthouse lawns and city squares across the South, felt a need to honor the sacrifice of the dead and to give meaning to the senseless suffering of the Civil War. But there was a lot left unsaid – ugly things about the senseless suffering of enslaved people and the continuing ideology of white supremacy.
And yet…have we really moved to a new level of discussion and engagement if we simply move the stones? That’s the easy part and it is functionally destructive. Where is the constructive counterpart?
Landrieu noted this:
Why there are no slave ship monuments, no prominent markers on public land to remember the lynchings or the slave blocks; nothing to remember this long chapter of our lives; the pain, the sacrifice, the shame… all of it happening on the soil of New Orleans.
I know the Lee monument in Charlottesville. It stands in front of the downtown United Methodist Church and we used to gather around it for the Palm Sunday celebration – something that always seemed like a perversion of the message of the day. Unless the waving palms were an act of defiance of death-dealing powers, a connection we never openly made.
I imagine a new act of art in such places. What if, lining the looming boxwoods that surround that memorial, there were new statues turned toward the general on his horse in various stages of reaction? White and black, 19th century and 21st century, stunned, appalled, weeping, wondering, saluting, casting stones? What if we commissioned a flurry of such works that would transform these old works from hagiography to conversation?
Perhaps the work of Michael Mergen, a photographer reflecting on memory and place, should get more prominence.
These old monuments deserve our attention because they are offensive. Some of them should go. But I can’t help feeling there should be more.