The other night I attended a panel discussion about "Confederate memorialization" at a large public university in northeast Tennessee. The four panelists were professors in the fields of history, sociology, religion/public art, and political science. I looked forward to a substantive discussion. Publicity for the event promised that, beyond the history of Confederate memorialization, speakers would "address … social, political and philosophical issues at stake in recent debates around the country regarding the presence of such monuments in the public square." Suitably academic titles were given for each of the speakers' presentations, e.g. "Contesting Southern Symbolism: Beyond the Either/Or of Hate or Heritage."
I came away disappointed. There was little in the way of discussion among the panelists. After each of them gave a quarter-hour presentation, the event was turned over to "questions" from the audience. These questions were largely opportunities for members of the audience -- mostly older white men like myself -- to share their own wisdom on the subject.
Wisdom, such as it was: "Robert E. Lee was a noble man who simply could not fight against his state." And the professors evaded whatever responsibility they might have had to uphold the lamp of learning by collectively nodding their heads, when they did not make matters worse by obfuscation (the sociologist introducing the datum that the African slave trade delivered only a relatively modest number of Africans to North America as compared with the other shores in the hemisphere), indifference (the political scientist showing predictable poll numbers parsing the political views on the subject of the statues and drawing the shoulder-shrugging conclusion that reconciliation won't happen), and outright, head-scratching oversimplification (the sociologist concluding that the memorials were meant to honor the dead, nothing more and nothing less).
It was almost as if the professors felt themselves to be in a cage with lions that they must be careful not to arouse. Weighty titles aside, their initial presentations were themselves superficial, generic, and anodyne. I knew the event was in trouble when the audience was treated to an explanation about "signifiers" and "signified." Nope, I thought, they're not going to probe this issue. Granted, some of their points might have been subtly aimed over the heads of their audience -- as when the public art scholar insinuated a symbolic meaning to Lee's equestrian persona -- but if so, no one was driving them home.
Only once was there any indication among the professors that the issue had any flesh and blood, and that was when the historian -- finally, after wasting his chance to do so in his initial presentation -- had a testy reaction to one of the sociologist's Confederate-friendly special pleadings by saying that the erection of most of the memorials coincided with the Jim Crow era. It was not so much too late as far too little.
But that was it: One small spark of historical context floated up into the vast ether of opinion and vanished.
For what it's worth, the handful of African-American students in the audience at the beginning of the session drifted away early, so that when one of the many Lee-apologists (who, to his credit, invoked the accomplishments of the Civil Rights era) made a gestural appeal to them, they were already gone. They'd probably already read the handwriting on the wall that said, "there's a lot more to this story, but we sure aren't going to talk about it."
And that's my beef. We need to talk about it. The whole story. Not just the story of Lee the virtuous man who couldn't fight against his state. It's not a bad story, such as it is, but it's far from the only one. Here are some things that the scholars might have used to broaden the discourse:
- Winfield Scott and George Thomas were Virginia-born generals who stayed with the Union. Where are the Virginia statues to these native sons, attesting to the virtue of loyalty to one's nation? It's not like Virginia doesn't care about the nation, e.g. Washington, Jefferson, Madison, etc., ad nauseam.
- And if Lee was only about Virginia, what is the purpose of having statues of him throughout the South?
- A panelist with some sense of responsibility to the subject might have indicated at least a nodding awareness of places that have actually removed such statues, like New Orleans, whose mayor Mitch Landrieu has just published a book on the subject. What was the process? What lessons are to be learned?
- Another sad lack was the panel's seeming unawareness of the South African process of public reconciliation over apartheid. Does the US need something like that? Maybe, maybe not. But we can arrive at no consensus if we don't even talk about it.
- There is also the question, "Who governs the public square?" These monuments are public property. Who owns them, and how do these owners determine their future? There was brief mention -- I believe by the religion/public art scholar -- of the way in which some states in the South have tied the hands of localities in pursuing relocation; that would have been an excellent topic to delve into. What should the options be? When is it truly erasing history, and when not? (My own opinion is informed by the presence, cheek by jowl with Lee Circle in New Orleans, of the Confederate Memorial Hall, a museum of which an ancestor of mine was the curator at its founding. To think that moving a statue of Lee erased history when right across the street is the freaking official museum of the freaking Confederacy is freaking laughable.)
- Mostly, though, there was a missed opportunity to demonstrate to the audience how our own personal opinions must not be allowed to silence the voices of the past. And the voices that are most relevant to this subject are the voices of the women -- in particular the United Daughters of the Confederacy -- who dedicated their social lives to the construction of these memorials. Were they motivated solely by a desire to memorialize the fallen? To say so is an egregious over-simplification. We must not only say they believed in the Lost Cause doctrine, but we need the opportunity to hear them articulate that doctrine in their own words. We must hear them say that the Cause expressly included slavery as the institution best designed to govern Africans and their descendants, and we must hear them say that, since the Northern victory destroyed the South's slave-based culture, at least -- and at last -- the United States could come together over the belief that the nation is the dominion of the white race, that African-Americans are incapable of citizenship, and that the South should be left to its own devices to keep African-American in the subject state to which they were best suited by nature, and thank the Lord for the Ku Klux Klan, "the very flower of Southern manhood," for rescuing the South from the horrors of African-American citizenship. That is what our ancestors believed, and that is the doctrine that Confederate statues were erected to glorify. No amount of obfuscation or wishing it away can contradict that. If anyone wants to talk about erasing history, let's talk about our craven unwillingness to hear our own ancestors' opinions in their own voices. This is not pointing fingers of blame so much as it is to understand that there was in fact, one upon a time, a nationwide reconciliation over this subject, except it was a white one, and it excluded blacks.
If we do not allow those voices to be heard in the context of a discussion of the statues that the UDC erected, then we will be unable to perceive that it is not just Robert E. Lee the individual that all those marble horses carry, but the full weight of history as it has come down to us. America is still overborne by that weight, and it deserves a public opportunity to be reconciled with it in order to be free of the burden and also to be able to face the future with greater confidence that the unity expressed in e pluribus unum finally applies to all citizens regardless of race. It does no good for scholars to abdicate their responsibility to this public good.