The people have spoken and the court has ruled that New Orleans officials can begin the process of removing the statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee at Lee Circle and three other monuments.
But before I delve any further into this issue I think it’s only fair that I briefly explain who I am and what my work is about. I’m a race, slavery and memory scholar. A big part of my work is public histories. I was drawn to public histories several years ago after I stumbled across some documents in the archive. The documents detailed the construction of a popular living history museum in Northern Ireland that was built in 1970s, the height of the Troubles. What I expected to read in the documents was an unwavering enthusiasm for historical accuracy and authenticity. What I actually found was the exact opposite. The master-mind behind the museum wanted to craft an historical narrative that would contribute to the depoliticisation of working-class Protestants and Catholics to deter them from paramilitary violence. This made me see museums a little differently. Museums are not static or objective harbingers of knowledge, they are politicised and contested spaces that are influenced by external factors. They tell us as much, if not more, about the world we live in today as they do about the past events and individuals.
So where does this leave us with Confederate monuments?
Firstly, I would like to say that I think that slavery was and is deplorable and America and Europe have been quick to forget this unpalatable part of their history. It truly irks me that New Orleans, home to America’s largest slave market in the antebellum period, has tried to erase this history entirely. There are no plaques. There are no statues dedicated to the victims of slavery. And, until recently, there were no slavery walking tours. I DO support more inclusive historical narratives that give a warts-and-all history of New Orleans. But I DO NOT support the removal of Confederate monuments. And here’s why:
- Public histories are not unbiased depictions of an individual or event (see previous paragraphs). They are products of their time and, as such, appear incredibly flawed to the people of today. I don’t expect my generation to feel at ease with the then completely acceptable language our grandparents used to describe people of colour back in the day. My point is attitudes change. The nineteenth-century abolitionist and highly religious depiction of an enslaved person kneeling down with a chain hanging from his neck would not be used today because it shows a lack of agency and a reliance on the white saviour. The image tells us NOTHING about the lives of the enslaved and EVERYTHING about Eurocentric ideas of slavery. A monument carved a hundred years ago is not an accurate portrayal of an event or individual, rather it’s the product of an idea of an event or individual that developed at a later stage. Monuments are time capsules. We can see what people thought and felt after a person died or an event has passed. And, for this, they serve as an important reminder of what oppressed peoples had to overcome and how far humanity has moved on.
- They are important tools in education. Glasgow, Scotland, is known as the ‘Merchant City’ exactly because it was home to some of Georgian Britain’s most affluent slave merchants. Glasgow built statues to commemorate the great ‘Virginia Dons’ who dominated the tobacco trade. If you take a walk around the city you’ll find yourself walking on streets named after slaveholders. But the BAME population is not campaigning for their removal. The Coalition of Racial Equality and Rights (CRER) was established in 2002 in Glasgow. Since then it has run hundreds of slavery walking tours. Statues, buildings and street signs play a huge part in their tours. The exclamations of horror heard when someone learns that the statue they walked past to go to work is actually of a slaveholder makes it all worthwhile. A person has to confront the institution of slavery AND society’s response to this. The latter can be just as shocking as the former. As important visual aids, if these statues and street-signs are obliterated the potential for learning about a city’s past via walking tours becomes more difficult. Instead of tearing monuments down USE THEM. They are a chuck of stone. Project what you will onto them. Write plaques that tell people about Andrew Jackson’s involvement in the Trail of Tears. Take visitors around the city and educate people about what these people did. Creating a dialogue is important if we are to inform people about the past.
- Do you feel uncomfortable looking at Confederate monuments? Good. You should. History is full of awful, nasty things that SHOULD make your anxiety levels go through the roof. Art (particularly old art) is not going to always support your worldview. And that’s healthy. Please debate it. Call each other out. And while you’re doing that you might just learn something you didn’t know before.
- Once they are gone they are gone forever. A child might walk past the Andrew Jackson monument and ask ‘What did he do?’ Fifty years from now that might not be the case. Removing statues will not correct the wrongs of the past, but fewer people will read the name Robert E. Lee. And that, in my opinion, is a great loss. In a world the prioritises STEM subjects, less and less people read history. Public histories play an important part in reconnecting people with the past and inspire more children to learn about their history.
These are my thoughts. Feel free to agree or disagree.