in memoriam of monuments, flags and statues: a fond farewell
By Brittany Sweeney-Lawson
There has been much ado made about the taking down of statues of historical leaders, both in the U.S. and abroad, as well as the removal of the Confederate flag from public places. Many a pearl has been clutched, with concerns posed regarding the distortion of our history, setting the standards for who can be memorialized impossibly high, and destruction of property.
Well, lay your worries to rest. Because without the statues and the flags, we’ll… be just fine. I promise.
It’s not like we’ve really been too keen on accurate history anyway. We like our history neat and tidy, with obvious good and bad guys. Most importantly, we want it to stay in the past, whether it was really resolved or not (slavery, removal of Natives from their lands, etc.). If history mattered so much, where was Juneteenth, or the actual backstory of Rosa Parks, or the practice of Redlining, or the Philadelphia bombings in any of my history textbooks?
There is a saying that history is written by the victors. But sometimes, that’s not even true. Just ask the United Daughters of the Confederacy, whose primary goal in the aftermath of the Civil War was to instill “Dixie Pride” into white children through education. Any textbook portraying the South as perpetrators of slavery were recommended to be deemed “unjust to the South.” The UDC also helped erect nearly 700 Confederate-celebrating statues. (Note: The UDC says their organization no longer promotes/tolerates racism or any associated symbols).
It’s not so much that we care about factual history– we care about how it makes us look. We have no issue calling out the evils of dictators or blatant human rights violations… as long as we’re pointing the finger at other countries. You know, the “shit hole” ones. We’re not such fans when the light is shined on us to reveal our shit does indeed also stink.
It is our feces-filled racist past, in fact, that has driven people to what are being dubbed as “extremist” actions today, namely, the flushing out of symbols of racism and intolerance. It’s more than a little hyperbolic to say removing the Confederate flag from government property or getting rid of statues of Jefferson Davis or General Robert E. Lee is some sort of erasure of history. How many people have ever gained the bulk of their knowledge of historical figures from statues? They usually don’t come with long descriptions of their subjects on the accompanying placards. They exist to enshrine legacies. They let us know, “this person was or did something great and deserves continued recognition and praise.”
The truth is, no one can ever live up to that level of adulation, because while every single one of us is filled with incredible strengths, we are also riddled with weaknesses. When we hold people to a standard engraved in bronze or marble, we will always inevitably be disappointed by the cracks and chinks we’ll find. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have statues– far from it. But it means we can use this beautiful art medium to depict fuller, deeper stories that more accurately reflect our storied past.
Instead, for some reason, we still have close to 1,800 statues of Confederate leaders throughout the U.S. This point has been brought up eloquently many times already, but in short… THE SOUTH LOST THE CIVIL WAR! This fact can be carefully preserved in history books, museums, and the internet, no statues needed. We used to be a part of the British Empire. We defeated their army in the Revolutionary War. So… why is our land not dotted with statues of King George III or General Howe? If we’re so into preserving our HISTORY, that was literally the war that was the beginning of ours. Where’s the patriotism for our motherland? Or for the British flag, for that matter? Somehow, even without these emblems, we are still very aware of our country’s origins, and annually celebrate our victory without also including the British’s defeat as part of the festivities.
It would seem as a country, we’re more afraid of pissing off bigots who cling to the past than of hurting Black Americans who are still shouldering the brunt of our nation’s historical trauma. The fact is, people are tearing down statues because the government has failed to listen to the pleas of its people who have requested many MANY times that these antiquated relics of our racist past be removed. But what’s the point of asking nicely if it falls on deaf ears? Crucial systemic changes have never begun with a “please” or “thank you.”
We can never truly move on and heal as a country until we are willing to acknowledge that symbols, like words, MEAN something. Flying a flag that, at it’s core, is a sad consolation prize for the South being forced to give up slavery and remain in the Union, is never going to unify us. Just because things exist or have been a certain way doesn’t mean they should be. That’s the attitude that would keep us in the era of typewriters and pagers, with some insisting what we had was “good enough,” so why hope for better?
We should never stop striving for a future that owns up to its past, and does what’s necessary in the present to not only take down offensive flags and statues, but the systems of oppression they stand for. And good on the people and governments that have since begun the effort to remove repressive symbols; Mississippi, I’m looking at you. I can’t wait to see your new flag design!
Don’t take my word, or anyone’s at face value. Additional reading and info on topics mentioned in this post can be found at:
-Rosa Parks backstory
-Philadelphia Bombings of 1985
-United Daughters of the Confederacy and historical whitewashing
-“What Should Happen to Confederate Statues in the U.S.”
Mississippi flag redesign
3 Responses to “in memoriam of monuments, flags and statues: a fond farewell”
Many societies have gone through periods of iconoclasm to mark the beginning of a new era.
Yes, it would seem so, and it makes sense. When we hold stubbornly to outdated symbols of oppression, it makes it harder to move on to greater things. Just as we periodically purge that which no longer serves us in our personal lives, so we do on a societal level as well.
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