In the current debate over statues of confederate leaders one of the objections has been, “You just want to erase history.” I’ve not heard the most obvious answer to that.
Which is, yes.
Erasing is what we do when we’ve made a mistake. In this case erasing doesn’t mean pretending that the Civil War never happened, as if the battlefields of Gettysburg would let us do such a thing. In this case, erasing means acknowledging that an interpretation of history was incorrect.
More properly said, it is erasing mythology. It’s a mythology so beautifully displayed in Gone With the Wind – the noble Lost Cause, the valiant fight for states’ rights.
And not a word about slavery.
It is erasing a mythology that says that white people are better than black, that white people should be in charge and make the decisions and keep themselves separate from blacks. Separate and truly not equal.
Lest you doubt that this is the mythology supporting these monuments, consider that many if not most of them were erected in times of civil rights struggles, both at the turn of the century and in the 1950’s. They celebrated not the sacrifice of war dead but the worldview for which they died: whites are better than blacks and should be able to determine where those black folks went to school and where they sat and where they ate and where they relieved themselves.
Look, we are erasing and revising all of the time. Sometimes it’s because our knowledge is always incomplete and as we learn more, we have to erase as fact what we once thought to be true. For example, I was taught in school that by a certain age our brains were fixed. We could lost brain cells but could not add to them. That’s what everyone thought.
And it wasn’t true. With new imaging possibilities, we’ve learned that our brains are capable of making new connections throughout our lives.
Sometimes we revise as act of repentance, realizing that what we once held not only wasn’t true, it wasn’t right. It wasn’t right to deny black children the same educational opportunities as white children. It wasn’t right to treat black folks as less than human because they are just as much beloved children of God as the whitest Daughter of the Confederacy. It wasn’t right, even though preachers of the time argued that it was what God intended.
And it isn’t right to put upon a pedestal people who fought to keep another people enslaved. Move the statues to the museums where they can be put into a context. Erect statues of people who fought injustice, not those who perpetuated it.
Lest you think this is just another knee jerk liberal writing this, let me tell you a little bit of my history. As a proud Virginian, my grandmother had two portraits on the wall of her house: George Washington and Robert E. Lee. I grew up seeing Gone With the Wind every year when it came around to our movie house. As a teenager I loved going to the Salem College bookstore because there I could buy books about the Civil War, including a biography of Lee. I have lived my entire life south of the Mason-Dixon line.
My ancestor was wounded at Gettysburg, fighting for the Confederacy. And my ancestors owned slaves. In a surviving will provision is made for one of those slaves. I own that part of my family history but do not celebrate it.
Let us declare the mythology for what it is. And let us continue to write a true history.