“The more popular argument for keeping these monuments is that removing them violates history. This argument is even easier to refute: if their erection represents history, then so does their removal. Taking them down—officially or unofficially—is history in the making.”
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My name is Patricia Davis, and this is my voice.
This is an important moment in history, and the renewed push to remove Confederate monuments and monuments to white supremacy is only one example. It’s easy to draw a direct line between police violence and the stubborn presence of these monuments, as they both symbolize the white male violence used to maintain the racial order. So it’s no surprise that the protests that have erupted against the killings of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Rayshard Brooks, and the many other victims of racist violence have included both the actions and demands to remove these statues. Monuments don’t function to teach anyone about history. They are, in actuality, assertions of power—the power to have your desired version of history become the official history that defines an entire community. The bigger and more imposing they are, the more prominent the spaces in which they are located, the stronger the assertion of power. They are forms of speech.
Confederate monuments are essentially a way for white people to say to Black people, this is your place in the social order. This is why the majority of them were put up at very specific moments in history, during the Jim Crow era and the civil rights movement. When you look at them this way, you can see how vandalizing them becomes more than just an act of mischief.
It is a form of resistance. Removing them permanently, particularly when it’s done by the authorities, makes an even stronger statement. I know this not only because I’ve dedicated my career to studying African American memory practices, specifically those connected to civil war history, but also because I’ve lived side by side with them. I grew up in Virginia, and in the center of my hometown, there’s a Confederate monument that most people probably don’t even realize it’s a Confederate monument. Like most of these structures, it’s located in the town square, in a well traveled and prominent area. In a lot of ways, it is the focal point of the community. Growing up, I also saw the Confederate flag from time to time, and though I can’t pinpoint the exact moment I associated it with racism, it prompted me to assume certain qualities about the person who was waving it—racist, ignorant, somebody who I should stay away from.
A formative moment in my understanding of the Confederate flag happened in high school when we watched one of the most influential documentaries I’ve ever seen: “Eyes on the Prize.” Scenes of violent white men and women waving the flag while brutalizing Black civil rights activists made the emotional attachments to the flag undeniable. These images immediately spring to my mind whenever I hear the ‘heritage, not hate’ adage. Though there have been moments in the past to remove these monuments and symbols, there is reason to believe this time is different. For one thing, this removal movement extends Confederate statues to encompass other monuments to figures of slavery, genocide, and conquest, including those to John Calhoun, Christopher Columbus, and Juan De Onate to name a few.
This movement also reaches beyond statues to other problematic memorials and icons, military bases named for Confederate generals, the Aunt Jemima, Uncle Bens, and Mrs. Butterworth brands and likenesses. The campaigns to remove these have been quite stunning. For example, the Confederate flag has been banned from display in the military. On the other hand, the fact that these symbols existed to begin with also reveals the reach of anti-blackness, how pervasive and deep it has become over the last 155 years. The resistance to their removal, to me, reveals how ferociously white people would cling to the structures of white supremacy and white privilege, while at the same time denying that white privilege even exists.
Some say that removing these monuments is merely symbolic. This is partially true. It is symbolic. Removing them does nothing to fix the disparities in education, housing, health care, or other structural problems. It does nothing to curb police violence, but it’s wrong to assume these actions don’t convey any kind of currency. Symbols carry significant power that often translates to material disparities. These statues are symbols of the racial order that makes them makes these disparities and inequities possible. Removing them marks a determination to fight for a more equitable future. The more popular argument for keeping these monuments, one that Donald Trump and others of his ilk are using, is that removing them violates history. This argument is even easier to refute. If their erection represents history, then so does their removal. Taking them down, officially or unofficially, is history in the making. These monuments have nothing to do with history, and to the extent that it has anything to do with heritage, it is a heritage that is centered on white supremacy, and that needs to change.