In January, city commissioners voted to remove a Confederate monument that has stood in front of the DeKalb County Courthouse in Georgia for more than a century. As expected, Atlantans remain split on the issue, some favoring Donald Trump’s view that removing these monuments is “changing history.” But if one thing is certain, it is that history is a practice. Events of the past themselves cannot be changed; what has happened has happened. What matters most is what we decide to do with the past and how we employ our historical practice to place it into appropriate historical narratives.
Confederate monuments are never about forgetting or correcting a violent past; they are about upholding a culture that is toxic and dominant.
The events that transpired in Charlottesville in August 2017 were not news to some of us that white supremacy is still vibrantly rampant in our society. For all of us, though, it should be a reminder that history is active; it almost always informs the present. When white nationalists crowded a public domain with the intent to defend their “right” to hate speech with violence, they brought with them an active history that indicated that they had every right to do so. Certain historical narratives are able to persist because of power. Power is possessed by the privileged. The United States was built (and continues to operate) on the assertion that history, power and privilege all belong to white people. This is what political inequality looks like at its very foundation. It is how violence against people of color gets justified every day, overtly and covertly.
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A call for an active practice of history is more important than ever. In a survey taken in the wake of the Charlottesville events, GenForward discovered that a majority of white millennials see the Confederate flag as a symbol of Southern pride. Conversely, the majority of millennials of color see it as a sign of racism. We tend to experience millennials as very diverse in their beliefs, but this diversity is not always indicative of anti-oppression. What it does mean is that millennials are strategic in what, how and when they support and believe the things they do.
Memorialization of the Confederacy was and remains the ultimate American attempt to change history.
It would be a mistake to begin to alter the landscape of Southern spaces without considering history as an active practice. The city of Atlanta has begun to make strides toward removing Confederate monuments. For as many people that are in favor of these initiatives, there are just as many “well-meaning” white people who suggest that leaving such monuments would serve as a reminder about a violent past to which we shouldn’t return. But Confederate monuments are never about forgetting or correcting a violent past; they are about upholding a culture that is toxic and dominant. Many of us, especially those of us who are Southern, need not travel far from our homes to get a tangible picture of this. Traditionally, Southern culture in itself has rarely been about amending historical violence. This is something we are still learning how to do. This excuse — one that is bent on the faith that American culture will for once be just and humane for all — is only afforded to those who don’t want to critically examine their investment in the safety of their whiteness.
And even those who argue that removal of monuments is changing the past must have forgotten that memorialization of the Confederacy was and remains the ultimate American attempt to change history. Erecting memorials in honor of those who fought and died for Confederate ideals was, in part, a tactic to overturn the loss the South suffered in the Civil War. While it could not reverse its surrender at Appomattox, the South sought to reverse the narrative of loss by instead focusing on Confederate pride. This practice of history is responsible for why, when we think of the Confederacy, we render it synonymous with the entirety of the South. In the South — just as true to our national heritage — we only want to forget when it is personally beneficial. That is, when we don’t have to consider the personal safety and humanity of others. When we can wail our hatred in the face of the powerless and call it “freedom of speech.”
The way forward is with methods to reframe the past. Memorials commemorating a regime of white supremacy are unnecessary tools. When we allow racist monuments to continue their purpose, we are nonetheless upholding and internalizing such values. That one choice alone is always active, and whoever is in defense of it is always responsible. What we allow to occupy physical and ideological space in our everyday lives and culture says a lot about what we are not willing to give up.