Taking down some more Confederate monuments, and learning some important history
by Rob Tiller
The big Confederate monument on the west side of the Capitol in Raleigh came down last week. I didn’t learn the news until I walked over there for my morning constitutional. Where there once was a 75-foot-tall obelisk, there was just a pile of rubble, which workers were cleaning up with a backhoe.
People think of these monuments as part of history, which they are, in a way, but not the way most people think. The big Confederate obelisk was dedicated in 1895. Right after the Civil War ended in 1865, during the 12-year Reconstruction period, there were meaningful efforts to recognize equal rights for formerly enslaved people, but after that, white supremacy was reinstituted in the new form known as Jim Crow. Most of the Confederate monuments in N.C. and elsewhere date from the Jim Crow period, and carry the coded message that the Lost Cause was noble, and white supremacy was still triumphant, so black people had better know their place, or else.
It truly is historic that these monuments are coming down, but I’m sorry that they’re coming down so quietly. There were apparently thousands of people cheering when the Confederate obelisk was dedicated, and probably a lot who would have liked to cheer as it came down.
Unfortunately, the Republican North Carolina legislature passed a law in 2015 following the mass murder of black people by Dylann Roof forbidding the removal of such state owned monuments. What were our Republican leaders trying to express, I wonder? Let’s hope it wasn’t support for white racist terrorism, which would not be unprecedented in North Carolina. Many of those Republicans are still in power, so let’s ask them.
Recently Governor Cooper issued a decree authorizing removal of the Confederate monuments at the Capitol, which he characterized as an emergency measure. The Governor’s reasoning was debatable, but close enough for government work. I’d been a little worried that well-meaning protesters would try to pull down the big obelisk and accidentally crush somebody. Happily, the government workers got the monuments down without anyone getting hurt.
This week I took a walk through the Oakwood Cemetery, including the Confederate section. It’s a quiet, lovely place, with old oak trees and gently rolling pastures. There are several stone memorials praising the valor of the Confederate soldiers and the nobility of the Lost Cause.
As for the soldiers, I’d guess there were some brave ones, and others who were flat out terrified. As in every war, most of them were just followers, doing what they were told to do. We can feel compassion for them as humans and feel sorry that their lives were cut short without thinking their cause was noble. Praising the Lost Cause (described as “Glorious” on a bench in the stone chapel shown below) is another matter. That’s morally derelict.
Speaking of monuments, there was an outstanding essay by Caroline Randall Williams in the NY Times titled You Want a Confederate Monument? My Body Is Confederate Monument. Williams sets out in stark terms something we don’t much like to think about: that the brutality of slave labor camps included a lot of rape of black women by white men. From this racist violence, children of mixed race were begotten, as shown by the many variations in skin tones we now call black. The evidence has been everywhere for all our lives, and we somehow managed not to notice. The good news is, now we’re recognizing it was shamefully wrong, and starting to see the need for reparations.
I also recommend a new essay by Isabel Wilkerson titled America’s Enduring Caste System. Wilkerson draws an interesting distinction between race and caste which explains how one can have no particular racial animus and yet still accept the caste system that subordinates people of color.
As Wilkerson explains, our caste system is not explicit, but it is deep seated and powerful. We understand it unconsciously, just as we understand our mother tongue, and it guides how we think about hierarchy and rights. As it has traditionally operated, our caste system decrees that people of color should live in different neighborhoods, go to different schools, have lower status jobs, and be regarded with suspicion. This is, of course, an artificial creation with its roots in the racism that was used to justify slavery. It is not immutable. When we look at it more closely, we start to see we can dismantle it.
I once thought I knew a fair bit about the history of slavery, but I’m finding there’s still a lot to learn. Last weekend Sally and I watched 13th, a documentary on Netflix about America’s still on-going program of mass incarceration of black people. It’s really excellent. The subject is multi-dimensional, but the director, Ava DuVernay did a brilliant job of boiling it down. Michelle Alexander, who wrote the essential book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, appears in the film, and contributes more here to our understanding.
I also want to give a shout out to Nikole Hannah-Jones for her new piece on reparations. Just as in her Pulitzer-Prize-winning 1619 Project work, she brings new aspects of the white supremacist system to light. In the new essay, she points up that giving enslaved people their freedom and ignoring their poverty and other needs was a brutal way of handling the situation, and it cost many lives. The continuation of white supremacy after the Civil War ensured that the descendents of enslaved people would remain second class citizens, poor and easily exploited.
H-J notes that the coronovirus pandemic has taught us some surprising lessons, one being that we can come up with $2 trillion dollars to address economic problems without breaking a sweat. She makes a compelling argument that now is a great time to finally acknowledge the immensity of the wrong done to kidnapped Africans and their descendents, and take a meaningful financial step toward righting that wrong. I’ll conclude by quoting the last two paragraphs of her piece:
Citizens don’t inherit just the glory of their nation, but its wrongs too. A truly great country does not ignore or excuse its sins. It confronts them and then works to make them right. If we are to be redeemed, if we are to live up to the magnificent ideals upon which we were founded, we must do what is just.
It is time for this country to pay its debt. It is time for reparations.