This isn’t a post I was planing to make, but with my undergraduate degree being in History, I feel like I need to make a few statements about the current state of affairs. There has been a rash of movements lately to tear down monuments of generals and leaders of the South from during the Civil War. This has been spurred on by the Charlottesville neo-nazi event which, once again, highlighted we still have not recovered from a very dark time in our past.
As my social media feed has exploded over the past few days, one theme has emerged – the two sides of the monument debate are talking past each other. On one side of the debate you have the anti-fascists proclaiming that we need to tear down these monuments to slavery and white supremacy. On the other side, you hear arguments about how we need to keep them as a reminder of our history. This argument about remembering history struck a nerve with me. Would tearing down these monuments mean we are forgetting our history?
The argument in favor of keeping these monuments believes, by tearing down these monuments, people are trying to change history or erase it’s memory. However, is that really true? Does tearing down a monument really cause us to forget our past or, even worse, demonstrate a desire to change the past? My answer is a resounding NO. In fact, I see just the opposite.
When we look at the monuments in the world that are built to remind us of our difficult past, one things stands out. They are not statues of individuals in public squares. Rather, they are buildings, or pieces of art, which represent the reason for their existence. They create historical awareness by placing the reality of its brutality and loss on display in a way that can’t be captured by a single individual statue. Even monuments to disasters, such as the I-35 bridge collapse, do not depict people. Instead they use symbols, such as abstract pillars to represent those lost in the tragedy.
The depiction of a person’s likeness in a statute is a way to keep their memory alive, and honor the work that they accomplished in their life. They are representations of humans who lived their lives with a specific purpose and legacy. By creating an everlasting likeness of them, we honor what they did. Children look up at these statutes and thing, “I want to be like this person.” Statutes are never meant to depict an evil event in history (except in a few cases where their entire goal is to be mocked and ridiculed).
The purpose behind erecting statues of individuals who fought in the Confederacy is to continue to try and honor the purpose that drove their life: the separation of the union, and the continued rights of states to enslave blacks. These were men who accomplished a lot in their lives, but their purpose and legacy became so entwined with the cause of the confederacy, that any other purpose for honoring them is moot.
People will bring up the fact that many founding fathers held slaves, yet that aspect of their life was never their defining goal. In the case of confederate leaders, this legacy is what made them memorable to history. They chose a path or separation and continued oppression of what they considered the inferior race. That is their legacy and memory. By erecting a statute of them, we’re validating that their life purpose and goal are valid and honorable ideals. When in fact, the opposite is the case.
People claim that by removing these monuments we’re forgetting history. This is not true, and in fact, shows just the opposite. By removing statutes that honor people whose ideals we find distasteful, we’re actually demonstrating that we do in fact learn from history. We’re showing that we no longer consider the ideals of these individuals to be acceptable in our country, and we no longer wish to honor and validate those ideals with personalized monuments. Tearing down these monuments is the highest form of validation that we have learned from the past, and don’t wish to repeat it. As a student of history, I applaud our country for finally acknowledging that we cannot continue to honor these leaders and give credence to their ideals. Ideals that stand in direct opposition to the country we strive to be.
History teaches us that those who do not learn from it are doomed to repeat it. We need monuments to help us never forget where we should never go again. However, statutes that give honor and glory to those who sought to tear our country apart. This sends the wrong message to future generations. Instead we need to send a message that all men are created equal, and that our country is willing to fight and die to protect that inalienable right.