On statues, southern heritage, and historical revisionism

A friend from high school posted a meme on a social network in June 2020 decrying the actions of those who sought the removal of statues of Confederate States of America generals and other U.S. Civil War figures while also expressing support for flying the “confederate flag,” as an expression of “southern heritage.”

I’ve known this man for all but maybe my first eight or nine years on this planet but haven’t interacted with him significantly in person since we graduated from high school. We reconnected online many years later. Like me, he’s from western Pennsylvania, not any former Confederate state.

I had some time when I came across it and know this person to be educable, so I delved into an attempted explanation of what I’d learned since high school that changed my views: I was taught that although the C.S.A. was wrong to start the war and fight the U.S., they were fighting for states’ rights under the 10th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. I know this now to be revisionist, overlooking the nature of the undeniably racist foundation of the C.S.A. and mistakes made in the original U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights containing the first 10 amendments to that constitution.

For some additional context, the meme parroted a sentiment that removing the statues was “erasing history” and “disrespecting southern heritage.” He incorrectly asserted that removing these statues is an infringement of the rights of people who want these things to stay — no one has a right to a statue on public land.

My comments follow, with some slight modifications, links added, and some editorial comments in the standard [editor’s brackets].

The main point of the action against statues is that it’s not erasing history. The majority of these statues were erected in the early 1900s by organizations such as the Daughters of the Confederacy in order to assert dominance and white supremacy in mostly southern states during a time of mass migration of people: the Industrial Revolution driving European immigration, the roaring ’20s, and the Great Depression. It was a buy-in to assert the Lost Cause of the Confederacy, which was an effort to reframe the civil war to be about states’ rights instead of slavery.

Two of the last vestiges of that misinformation campaign are 1.) statues and 2.) the association of the battle flag of a defeated army defending human traffickers with “southern heritage”, which can best be described in modern terms as “a culture that trafficked human life and killed humans when they didn’t or couldn’t do the forced work.”

These statues don’t exalt war heroes. They exalt human traffickers who shed blood in defense of the enslavement of people codified in the Confederate States of America’s very own Constitution [specifically Article I Sections 2.3, 9.1, 9.2, 9.4; Article 4 Sections 2 and 3.3].

The “southern heritage” associated with the war lasted four years. After that, what differentiated the south from the north was illegal but it took two more years to actually enforce abolition. Hence, Juneteenth.

Were it not for a war in which hundreds of thousands of Americans died to end something that should have been prohibited 70+ years earlier during the creation of the U.S. Constitution or its Bill of Rights, this “southern heritage” would be a short chapter about how eventually the south succumbed to economic pressure, freed its slaves, and started paying them and then enjoyed significant economic prosperity thereon.

We have movie franchises and TV series now that have lasted longer than the Confederate States of America had. [The historical revisionist] nightmare is what got us Jim Crow laws, segregation, redlining, the war on drugs, “law and order” candidates, gun control debates, and a whole host of other things that can be directly tied to the “southern heritage” which nowadays is just code talk for white supremacy.

He cited vaguely some reignited discussion about racism in Mary Poppins from a popular 2019 paper, expressing disbelief that something so generally beloved could possibly have a racist element. He also lamented his perceived disrespect by kneeling athletes during the playing of the National Anthem at sports events and his perception of the disrespect of police and the general looting and rioting following protests of the murder of George Floyd.

I replied.

Elements of Mary Poppins are racist. That outrage from 2019 was about the chimney scene where the characters faces’ covered in soot is basically blackface. That alone is funny and cute to most and could pass without challenge. What turns it into a racist thing is the dialog when they use the word “Hottentot”. That even in the ’60s was a Dutch and German derogatory term for a Khoikhoi, a group of indigenous people from South Africa and Namibia with a speech pattern that sounded to colonizers like stuttering. Stuttering speech + blackface + derogatory word = yep, racist.

Disrespecting police, protesting, rioting, and looting are reflexive to police brutality and systemic racism. An unfortunate part of “southern heritage” is where police came from: the nightwatchmen, from which modern police descended, returned fugitive slaves to their owners. It’s an institution corrupted from its very start. It had a chance to break away from that history but hasn’t really ever done that.

[I would be remiss not to plug Behind the Police at this juncture. I went into listening to that podcast series feeling like I understood American police history fairly well. I learned a ton so I highly recommend it to everyone, especially those who have a generally favorable view of police anywhere.]

Cops from where we grew up [in rural midwestern Pennsylvania] may not have been as problematic as the cops we hear about in news reports, but I’ll tell you that friends of mine have had their fair share of run-ins with [our town’s police] wherein the cop earned the label “bad cop”. A friend of mine spent more than $10,000 defending himself against what came down to bad police work by [our town’s police].

Flag burning is distasteful as is vandalism, but you really gotta look at why and who. A lot are just agitators trying to take advantage of the escalation of violence that modern policing takes. Watch the lawsuit against the City of Pittsburgh for its actions against protestors on June 1st unfold for a modern treat in police escalation of violence and issuance of illegal orders toward 100% peaceful protestors. [All charges were dropped against the ~50 protestors charged.]

No one is infringing on your rights here. You should concern yourself with how others’ rights are being infringed, because if their rights are being infringed, so can yours.

Another high school classmate whom I deeply respect chimed in, too. He expressed frustration with the mob mentality inherent in rioting and with the removal of statues unrelated to the war or obvious racism: problematic abolitionists, saints, Abraham Lincoln himself. He mentioned but provided no citations for “high ranking members of Black Lives Matter calling for the destruction of churches and statues of Christ.” He warned of “white left-wing radicals inciting mobs and tearing down cities”, “hijacking what could be a positive moment for change and understanding.”

In October 2020, AP reported that “most arrested in protests aren’t leftist radicals” based on a review of thousands of pages of court documents related to charges explored and filed since June 2020.

I thanked him for participating — and for complimenting me for my previous comments before writing the above — and I continued.

Calls for the destruction of anything are uncomfortable. That’s the intent: to force folks who value something to reconsider the reasons why they value it.

20 years ago, if someone asked me why I valued a statue of Christopher Columbus, I’d have said that he was a brave explorer who found the new world. Today, I understand his role as an explorer but know that he was a violent leader who inflicted tremendous suffering upon the indigenous peoples he encountered, in part because of their differences in religion. I also know now that his elevation is a product of early 20th century efforts by Italian-Americans and other white folks to mitigate rising systemic racism against Italian immigrants and to differentiate their plight from the plight of formerly enslaved Black people. [President Benjamin Harrison declared the first Columbus Day in 1892 shortly after the lynching of 11 Italian immigrants in New Orleans in order to placate Italian-Americans outrage and the Italian government, but it wasn’t a regular national holiday until 1968, says Wikipedia.]

20 years ago, I was a child. Now I’m an educated adult and realize that the reasons for the statues were disingenuous and wrong and that we should not suffer the exaltation of someone who was so demonstrably evil. He wasn’t even the first European here, as we were taught!

I’ve not heard about calls to tear down statues of Lincoln and the others you’ve mentioned. [As of this writing in October 2020, I’ve never found credible evidence of this.] I’ll perhaps go figure out what’s going on there, but allow me this moment of exploration.

I think of it like this: the buildings we’ve built are not in the image of the people who built them. The individuals who built the building are often forgotten. Where the building was built matters for as long as it stands. That building will stand as long as someone cares for it. When a building has some kind of special significance to people, that significance pervades the building. That significance can be positive or negative. It’s good and wholesome and pure, or it’s tainted and corrupt, sullied by its genesis. When the people who view it negatively outnumber those who view it positively, it’s past time to revisit why.

Statues are similar. It’s pretty vain to build your own statue so it’s safe to relegate that behavior to megalomania. A statue bears a human resemblance, so we naively associate it far more with the person modeled than those who erected the statue, including their full context for doing so. We judge cultures by the people they celebrate. There are few better ways to celebrate someone than by erecting a statue of them to commemorate them for as long as the statue may stand.

When the reasons for that statue to exist are found to be false or found to be not in good faith, it’s time to reconsider if the statue should exist. We forget things and then we remember them when someone who cares finds a voice and inspires others to care.

A statue of Jesus is by itself is innocuous. I’ve seen a lot of them and they’re quite amazing sometimes. I avoid organized religion these days but I respect those who demonstrably seek to be Christlike.

A statue of Jesus built on land stolen from Native Americans, such as those who were forced onto the Trail of Tears, is better moved to a museum, where the story can be told of how evil it was to forcibly move a population and then build religious artifacts on the rubble of their homes.

This is not meant to be a well-researched article or some level of precis. I did have to look up some things to refresh my memory while writing it. I share this in part to improve my own skill and comfort expressing my thoughts about white privilege, white exceptionalism, and other long-lasting side effects of awful white supremacy in pursuit of being a better anti-racist. I have learned a lot and know I still have much to learn. I share this mostly to combat the ideology of historical revisionism as a danger facing anyone who can be influenced, from starry-eyed and sponge-like children to adults equipped with a Share button and inadequate willingness to understand the world around them that their forebears and peers present, be they honest or dishonest in that presentation.

Thank you to the several people who liked this on Facebook and urged me to collect it together somewhere less ephemeral. Thank you to the several people who proofread and suggested changes in prose and citations ahead of publication here.

Written by

Scholar, bon vivant, champion of the oppressed. Pittsburgh-based software engineer+architect+consultant and community builder seeking serenity. http://cad.cx

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