Confederate Iconography and the “Dream” of White America

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.

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14 comments… add one
  • kew100 Jul 20, 2015

    Very, very good. Thank you.

  • Andy Hall Jul 20, 2015

    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.

    Exactly so. The pushback against Confederate iconography is not something that sprang up de novo in the last month — it’s been there for a long time, but never got a full hearing from the media and elected officials who generally found it easier to push it aside. The same politicians who are now being accused of acceding to the demands of the far left are the same ones who spent years tip-toeing around the subject for fear of offending their revanchist supporters on the far right. (See Senator Lindsay Graham’s mealy-mouthed “it works here” comment about the Confederate flag on the grounds of the South Carolina Statehouse as a perfect example of trying to split the proverbial baby on this issue.) What’s changed in the last month is that, after the shooting in Charleston, the public and the media is increasingly unwilling to let public officials, and government at all levels, continue to evade the issue. It’s time to stand up and be counted, and the heritage crowd is now shocked, shocked to discover that not nearly so many people in 2015 have a sense of fealty and obligation to the Confederacy of 1861-65.

    The current head-long rush to clear the landscape of anything and everything connected to the Confederacy is a mistake made in the heat of the moment. There are some things — like the flag on the Statehouse dome in Columbia — that should never have been there in the first place. But every case, including that flag, needs to be considered carefully on its own, and decisions reached in a deliberate way. Every community needs to have these conversations, and they are long, long overdue.

    • Kevin Levin Jul 20, 2015

      I agree with your final point. My fear is that this post will be misinterpreted as supporting removal. It is not. I am simply tired of the ease with which many people are brushing off the argument for removal, which I believe is a legitimate response to these sites for the reasons I expressed in the post. We need to find ways to acknowledge the impetus for these calls. It may be possible to channel it in ways that many of us view as constructive, but it may also be the case that removal is appropriate.

    • Leo Jul 20, 2015
  • Paul Reber Jul 20, 2015

    Kevin:

    Thanks for your comments about Coates’s book. I have ordered a copy and am looking forward to reading it.

    There is clearly a lot of baggage being unwound here, and this is a good thing. I worry a bit, though, that the rush to condemn will overcome the more important effort to understand.

    I have not heard a lot from my public history colleagues, but we have a role to play here. This is especially true of places like Stratford Hall, where we have spent a lot of time developing new programs and interpretive experiences that will hopefully provide context and perspective on the history of the American Revolution and the Civil War.

    It is fair to say that racism is our great unresolved national issue, but there is a lot more to it than a flag and a bunch of Confederate memorials.

    • Kevin Levin Jul 20, 2015

      Hi Paul,

      I have not heard a lot from my public history colleagues, but we have a role to play here.

      Of course, I agree with you on this score, but I don’t believe that the goal of interpretation ought to be given any special status. In fact, I tend to think that this is a position that folks like you and me are privileged to be able to take. It may have no relevancy whatsoever for people who approach monuments from a perspective that neither you and I can begin to understand.

      • Paul Reber Jul 20, 2015

        Sadly, I suspect you are correct it is a privilege we are able to take. If someone could tell me what I can do about that privilege I would be pleased to hear about it. Bridging the gulf between understanding, reason and emotion is not an easy thing.

      • cagraham Jul 20, 2015

        “It may have no relevancy whatsoever for people who approach monuments from a perspective that neither you and I can begin to understand.”

        This.

        This cohort who approach–or rather, don’t approach–is growing as demographic changes transform this nation, on top of the detachment created by privileged history. When I sit here and advocate the additional of new interpretive panels to, or erection of new statues alongside, old monuments, it all seems insignificant and incremental compared to this yawning gap that we, as interpreters and stewards, barely understand.

        How do we *act* in the face of this, particularly when one lesson to emerge here is the necessity for people like us is to simply listen, and not try to control the conversation?

        • Kevin Levin Jul 21, 2015

          How do we *act* in the face of this, particularly when one lesson to emerge here is the necessity for people like us is to simply listen, and not try to control the conversation?

          In so many ways, this statement gets to the heart of the matter. The public history angle is essential, but we ought to understand that it comes from a very different place from calls to remove monuments and flags.

  • Forester Jul 20, 2015

    I oppose removal of any monument built while the generations who suffered the war were still alive. But I don’t give a rat’s buttock about later nonsense like the Lee Chapel flags or the SC Statehouse flag.

    For me, that’s where the line is drawn. Monuments from the time are “grandfathered,” but newer Confederate monuments (and/or flags) are mostly garbage.

    BTW, Kevin, I read your blog about Europe. It’s interesting that they moved communist statues into museums, but I wonder if that is due to how recently communism fell in Prague. They are not 150 years divorced from the conflicts like Americans are, and I would imagine they fear communism coming back. It’s only been 20 years, after all. We don’t have to worry about slavery being reestablished in America, so I don’t know if we need to be as strict about monuments.

  • Nora Carrington Jul 21, 2015

    “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.”

    Absolutely this. And basically everything Andy Hall said, too. The fact there is so little acknowledgment that Jim Crow is what followed the Civil War is what makes the Heritage argument so specious. On the most charitable interpretation, the Heritage argument is premised on the false claim that what the Civil War represented was *over* when the Civil War ended. What Coates is arguing among other things is that in some sense the end of the Civil War was only the beginning — of a new and differently ordered reign of terror, this time under color of law.

    • Brad Jul 21, 2015

      Trouble in Mind by Leon Litwack is required reading.

  • kew100 Jul 21, 2015

    One possible move would be to document lynchings and murders from Reconstruction thru the present day. As historians, I assume you probably understand the difficulty of presenting the atrocities as opposed to the valor (real/imaginary) of soldiers.

    What work would need to be done to move toward memorials of lynching sites? I assume that many monuments that went up in the ’40’s-60’s must have had some Federal support.

    There are lists (e.g., http://abhmuseum.org/category/lynching-victims-memorial/) there is a nascent Google map layer (https://www.google.com/maps/d/u/0/viewer?mid=zOzRD0e6goZk.kPtKxv5zFI2g&hl=en_US).

  • Dan Jul 22, 2015

    Thank you Kevin for this. I can understand the feelings of those who object. On the other hand the memorials to the dead soldiers are still important..Not all of those soldiers were slave owners or even racists. I just feel that there has to be a way of honoring the dead, they were all Americans we should be able to put our heads and thoughts together and find a reasonable solution. It just should not be all or nothing.

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