A week later and I am still digesting Ta-Nehisi Coates’s new book, Between the World and Me. I read it in two sittings and it knocked me right on my ass. I suspect that for most white readers his is a world that can barely be glimpsed. What does it mean to live in a black body that can be taken away in the most violent of ways with no consequences. Before reading this book I rarely thought about what it means to live in a white body in such visceral terms. That is my privilege as a white American.
But if my personal access to a world perceived through a black body is closed off, I have caught glimpses of the “Dream” that Coates describes that has helped to maintain a society that cannot but engage in forgetfulness rather than face essential truths. The following passage comes toward the end of the book as Coates describes the meeting with the mother of Prince Jones, a college friend from Howard University who was gunned down by Prince George Country (MD) police.
The forgetting is habit, is yet another necessary component of the Dream. They have forgotten the scale of theft that enriched them in slavery; the terror that allowed them, for a century, to pilfer the vote; the segregationist policy that gave them their suburbs. They have forgotten, because to remember would tumble them out of the beautiful Dream and force them to live down here with us, down here in the world. I am convinced that the Dreamers, at least the Dreamers of today, would rather live white than live free. In the Dream they are Buck Rogers, Prince Aragorn, an entire race of Skywalkers. To awaken them is to reveal that they are an empire of humans and, like all empires of humans, are built on the destruction of the body, It is to stain their nobility, to make them vulnerable, fallible, breakable humans. (p. 143)
This Dream is at work in the way we have approached questions about the display of Confederate iconography such as flags and monuments in recent weeks.
It can be seen in the continuing hold and embrace of the soothing fantasy that is the Lost Cause. It can be seen in what moves heritage organizations and other to populate the Confederate army with thousands of mythical black soldiers. It can be seen in the claim that calling for the removal of flags and monuments is akin to a Stalinist purge.
It can also be seen in the thoughtful arguments that come from people who have discovered their own sense of honor and duty in the lives of Confederate leaders such as Lee, Jackson and Forrest even as they fail to come to terms with what those virtues were exercised to accomplish. It can be seen in the understanding of Confederate soldier monuments as simply representing the community’s relationship to the men that it sent off to war. And it can be seen in references to the ways that Americans, including the veterans themselves at the turn of the twentieth century, understood their monuments.
I even see it in my own retreat to and reliance on the best of public history theory that sees opportunity in the interpretation of monuments or their place in my own history teaching curricula. It’s almost as if we are saying leave it to us to explain the emotional and physical pain as part of the injustices of the past.
The Dream is the belief that some sort of national reconciliation is possible either through willful misrepresentation of the past or through interpreting it directly and honestly.
We have a Civil War and even a burgeoning Civil Rights heritage, but perhaps what we need more than ever is a Jim Crow heritage. Ultimately, that is what gave birth to Confederate monuments and eventually reinforced the Confederate flag’s place in the history of the 1860s. The history of Confederate monuments are wrapped up in the desire to establish and maintain political control for white Americans. White supremacy is what made the monuments possible to begin with and it is the monuments, that, in turn, would help play a role in solidifying white political control for future generations.
The past and the future come together in these monuments.
Most Americans prefer to move from a Civil War that ended with emancipation directly to a Civil Rights Movement that did little more than mop up loose ends on our nation’s inevitable path to freedom. What happened in between is little more than a blur. Even as we craft a one-dimensional interpretation of the past that conforms to our understanding of American Excpetionalism we ignore the central component that made possible their own understanding of American Exceptionalism: white supremacy.
To try to brush aside calls to remove monuments and flags is tantamount to misunderstanding the very history that these monuments were intended to celebrate and the future that this history was intended to protect. This is true from the monument to Nathan Bedford Forrest in Memphis, Robert E. Lee in Richmond and every Confederate soldier monument, regardless of the specifics of the inscription or who said what during its dedication.
There is certainly some opportunism at work in calls to remove Confederate iconography, but there are also plenty of sincere individuals and organizations involved. They do not need a lesson in history or an introduction to the possibilities of public history and they do not need to hear of the possibilities that we can all find our own meaning in these symbols.
What we are witnessing is a delayed response that took decades to organize – a response that was not possible when many of these monuments were first dedicated and a declaration that states in no uncertain terms that this is not who we are and that we will not be ignored.