by: Jenny Maloney
“It’s time to put these statues in museums with other remnants of things we know to keep in the past…”
I‘m in Stone Mountain, Georgia. I’m ten years old and my family — my mother, father and my brother — stand in a field as we look up at the scene carved into the looming rock face. My parents tell me the names of the three men: Confederate President Jefferson Davis and his generals, Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson. In the moment when I learned who these men were, I didn’t much care. This family trip was one of many tourist-trap excursions that we went on throughout my long ordeal of growing up in an Army family. I remember thinking that it must have taken a lot of time to carve these men. I also remember it was a sunny and tranquil summer day.
Fast forward many years later — there’s a protest, a petition, an argument, and a movement is growing to erase these carvings from the face of the mountain. That movement is still going on to this day. I just googled it — because I google everything.
My first reaction upon hearing about the petition was much like many others: “But that’s art. But that’s history. How can you erase it?”
I‘m thirty-eight years old and geographically, I’m far, far away from the violence-filled protests that are unfolding in Charlottesville, Virginia. But, thanks to Facebook and Twitter — things I couldn’t imagine back when I was ten years old — these events are in my face and I am confronted with images of white men in polo shirts and khakis flying Confederate flags and swastikas while carrying tiki torches. Even as people laugh at the tiki torches I think: they can still burn you.
Some of these men have come to defend a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee — a piece of art, a piece of history. They don’t want it taken down; they don’t care that it makes black people uncomfortable; they don’t understand that they should be uncomfortable.
They care that it’s their history, their father’s history. Like me, they heard the stories their parents told them. How the Civil War was about states rights. How General Lee was a gentleman and a righteous leader and a brilliant strategist and how he would’ve won if he’d had the resources. How the Northerners burnt entire cities to the ground, turning homes into graveyards when all the South wanted was to govern itself, and isn’t that the definition of an American?
I see the photos, watch the videos, and pray that none of my relatives’ faces show up holding the stars and bars.
Flash back to Fountain, Colorado and I’m twenty-five years old, in college and taking an Ethnic Literature class taught by a white woman. I read Frederick Douglass for the first time. He describes being able to put his pen between the cracks in his feet. He explains that he does not know his birthday. He tells the story of his mother, walking twelve miles through the night to curl herself around her son for a few moments before walking twelve miles back. I cry when I read those words.
My three-year-old son sleeps three feet away from me. He’s never been much farther away from me than that. I curl myself around him and sleep that way throughout the night — a gift Douglass’s mother never had. For the first time, I’m viscerally aware of the Civil War, something years of staring at statues and hearing stories — were they true at all? — never accomplished.
The next time someone points out that the Civil War was about states rights, I point out the only right the states fought to defend was the right to slavery, the right to own other human beings. It is the only “right” listed in all secession letters I tell them.
Jumping forward a few years I’m thirty-one years old on a Sunday. I’m watching a news story about human trafficking until it’s suddenly interrupted by “news from the White House.” There’s something going on in a place called Abbottabad, Pakistan. Mostly, I’m annoyed. There’s a still picture of the White House and news anchors talking about how “something is happening.” But no one knows what. The non-news is aggravating. I tell my husband, “The only thing that would be worth this much drama is if they got bin Laden.”
Then I realize what I just said. And I knew. The world was now short one, ruthless terrorist. It was a good day to be an American. In the next forty-eight hours word spread that bin Laden had been buried at sea, within the timeline for Muslim last rights. The reasons for his sea burial were explained. It was the same reason why the Russians will never tell us where Hitler is buried, or burned, or whatever they did with him — so there cannot be a shrine built to honor him.
It’s 1917 and I’m not even a twinkle in my grandfather’s eye. In Charlottesville, Virginia a statue is raised of a man on a horse. Confederate General Robert E. Lee has now literally become taller than life. He was efficient. He was a brilliant tactician, who lost his war but fought for a noble cause. His home, which he lost in a tax dispute against the United States Government, was turned into a cemetery. Surely, a man who sacrificed so much should be honored. Remembered.
But the “noble cause” he fought for meant the perpetual enslavement of millions. He himself separated the black families he owned — he was the one who determined that a mother like Frederick Douglass’s must walk twelve miles to curl around her son for a few minutes before walking another twelve miles to return to hours of back breaking work. Somehow, a statue of a losing general who fought for an inhumane cause is erected almost half a century after the war was lost. It’s a perplexing meditation to consider.
I‘m thirty-eight years and I sitting at my computer in Colorado Springs, Colorado. I don’t understand the photographs on the screen in front of me. There’s a silver car and bodies flying every which way. There are men screaming with angry faces lit by fire. And there are flags from defeated countries waving against a blue sky.
I remember a story I was once told by a professor — and I have no way of confirming whether or not this is true — but he said that the largest collection of Nazi propaganda is in a vault somewhere in Colorado Springs. He told me that he’s been in this vault and has seen the collection with his own eyes. He told me that the people who are in charge of this vault will never open it to the public.
Why? I wonder. And then the answer come to me. Because, even knowing what it represents, the red and black and white, the swastikas, the posters, the images…when he was surrounded by it, my professor had a hard time not believing in it. A hard time not lifting his hand to the sky.
Many people do not think of Confederate statues as propaganda. They argue, like I did, that these statues are pieces of art. See General Lee flying along on horseback? Note the movement, the musculature. But, in all my conversations standing at the feet of these statues, I’ve never heard this kind of argument. We never discuss these statues as art for their own sake. Their subjects demand too much attention.
But the statues are pieces of historical significance, right? These men lived, breathed, and walked the earth. They fought in battles. They made decisions that affected the world. Some say they belong on our country’s family tree.
To that I must say: There are no statues of Hitler. The statues of Saddam Hussein were taken down. Bin Laden has no statute. These are men who lived, breathed, walked the earth, fought battles, made decisions that affected the world, and are part of our collective family tree. And they lost.
To those who say that a Lee, or a Jackson, or a Davis, are not as bad as a Hitler, or a Hussein, or a bin Laden, I say they maintained and supported a system which led to the mutilation, torture, rape, and death of millions of people.
The impact of a Lee, or a Jackson, or a Davis, is even greater — and made worse — because shrines have been built to these myths, these lies that we tell ourselves. Generations of white children have stood at the foot of Stone Mountain, or at a statue of Lee or Jackson, and been told the same lies I have been told. About merciful slave owners. About states rights. About the genteel world that was blasted away.
Generations of white men think it’s okay to wear sheets, burn crosses, and fly dead flags. We must remove their statutes, their shrines, and their propaganda, so they know that this racist cause is gone. So they know that is not okay to wear sheets, burn crosses, fly a dead flag, or to kill people who disagree with you.
It’s time to put these statues in museums with other remnants of things we know to keep in the past. It’s time to recognize these statues for what they really are—representations of flawed men who fought for an ignoble cause. It’s time to take them down.