As monuments to supremacism come tumbling down around the world, there’s no clear plan yet for what to do with the ones here in the U.S.
There’s an understandable impulse to destroy these monuments, many of which are statues that range from slavers and Confederates like Robert E. Lee to expansionists and white supremacists like Theodore Roosevelt. Some, for now, have been placed out of sight, out of mind.
These monuments have the power to incite our emotions. They derive this power from their symbolism. Confederate monuments represent the Lost Cause — the ideology that says the cause of the Confederate states during the Civil War was a just and heroic one — and many people claim this is a substantial part of their personal family heritage. As such, they decry the crusade to remove these monuments because they feel this constitutes the erasure of American history.
There is a way we can strip these monuments of their power while we preserve their true history, ugly though that history may be. Their history is not only the Lost Cause, a belief based on lies instilled in these monuments by their makers. Their history is when and why these monuments were installed: between 1880 and 1930 monuments were erected across the South with the intention of “justifying segregation and relegating African Americans to second-class status,” according to Civil War historian Kevin Levin.
I recently read Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist. In it there’s a brief exchange between a young shepherd who’s wrestling with the idea of pursuing his life dream, and a wise old man who eggs him on.
The exchange goes like this:
“What’s the world’s greatest lie?” the boy asked, completely surprised.
“It’s this: that at a certain point in our lives, we lose control of what’s happening to us, and our lives become controlled by fate. That’s the world’s greatest lie.”
The idea of fate as a catalyst in American history is peculiar. For decades following the country’s founding, the American experiment was largely considered to be by design. In some eras, perhaps even today, it was thought to be sanctioned by God. Conversely, Americans can feel uncomfortable with the idea that their country and their national history are not driven explicitly by them, the people; fate takes control out of their hands and leaves the future up to chance—it’s unsettling to have no autonomy over your life and its direction.
But we’re hard pressed to consider the presence of fate when it comes to some of America’s most notable figures. Imagine if George Washington had not dodged at least four bullets in the French and Indian War, more than 30 years before he became the first president? Where would we be today had he not defied death?
Since Washington, no other president has looked death in the face and lived to tell the tale more often than Theodore Roosevelt. (In 1912, Roosevelt famously delivered a 50-page speech more than an hour long after he was shot in the chest with a .38-caliber revolver.) Can we really say fate was not at play when he nearly died in Pittsfield, Massachusetts?
George Washington is always depicted as a solemn individual. From the dollar bill to the National Portrait Gallery, Washington is consistently precisely dressed, masculinely posed, and practically frowning. He was “first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen.”1 He was our first president and arguably most famous American. He secured a place in American folklore, like the Cherry Tree myth where a six-year-old Washington, wiser than his years, proclaims “I cannot tell a lie.”2
But his place in American legend fogs the fact that Washington was a person like us, one with flaws, imperfections, and sometimes questionable tastes. Through his quirky sense of humor, we can strip away the glossy veneer of Washington: the historical figure and get better acquainted with Washington: the man. For, like many of us, he had at times a slapstick, situational, lowbrow, and deadpan sense of humor, sometimes coarse, cutting, and sometimes cringe-worthy.
He didn’t refrain from laughing at lewd jokes or the physical pain of others. Sometimes he was the center of a comedic situation simply because of his good nature, the brawny Washington an awkward if not comical sight when performing acts of genuine kindness to others unexpectedly, appearing, if only for a few moments, a mere mortal instead of a living legend.
The Commonwealth of Massachusetts is home to numerous cities and towns whose namesakes are of European descent dating back hundreds of years. It makes sense, of course, given that European powers claimed communities up and down the East Coast, with the British concentrating, in part, around New England during its earliest period of colonial settlement. Some of these weird Massachusetts town names, though, have a muddled origin; some have changed over time, as all languages do, while others remain unexplained to this day. Take, for example, the village of Satans Kingdom in Northfield, Massachusetts.
Satans Kingdom is arguably the strangest name of any area in Massachusetts. Consider for a moment that the state is overflowing with place names that are blatantly English (e.g., Gloucester, Leicester, Leominster, Worcester), are currently names of other more prominent places worldwide (e.g., Florida, Peru, Holland, Mt Washington), and are names of local historical figures (e.g., Adams, Hancock, Webster, Lowell, Revere, Winthrop). Others are comically odd (Braintree, Belchertown, Cummington).
You get the idea.
But Satans Kingdom is noticeably different. It injects an air of foreboding, casts a dark mystique over the area, implies the dominion of the devil. So how could Massachusetts name a place so eerie when it’s surrounded by places with names so endearing?
The founding and maintenance of the United States by its presidents led to the subsequent naming of cities, towns, schools, roads, bridges, and buildings in their honor. Perhaps the most obvious example pertains to George Washington, namesake of our nation’s capital; not to mention, it seems like every community in every corner of the country has a Washington Street of some varying length and prominence.
James Monroe with Washington shares the distinction of having a national capital named for him: Monrovia, Liberia. Here in the US at the state level there’s Jefferson City, MO (Thomas Jefferson); Madison, WI (James Madison); Jackson, MS (Andrew Jackson); and innumerable counties nationwide named for every one of these men and others. The list continues on through the forward trajectory of history.
This trend seems to have peaked after the assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963, prompting a wave of locations, public spaces, and memorials named for the 35th president. With the founding and incorporation of towns essentially at a standstill since westward expansion in the 19th and 20th centuries, most modern presidents lend their monikers to the likes of battleships, airports, and national parks.
There was only one president, though, actively took part in the naming of a city and put pen to paper, scribing its name identically to his. One can almost picture him slouched over a desk, lazily and loopily sketching his name on the incorporation papers where a line on an official document thirsted for ink: L-I-N-C-O-L-N.
Alexander Stephens (1859)/ Image via Public Domain
On Sunday, May 21, 1865, the president and vice president of the Confederate States of America bade each other farewell. The latter would recall of the former, “he seemed more affected than I had ever seen him. He said nothing but good-bye, and gave my hand a cordial squeeze; his tone evinced deep feeling and emotion.”
It would be the last time rebel leaders Alexander Stephens and Jefferson Davis would shake hands.
Stephens had been arrested ten days prior at his estate in Crawfordville, GA — the main house of which he ironically named Liberty Hall — on charges of treason. He had woke that day, May 11, “a most beautiful and charming morning,” ate breakfast and wrote letters, and learned Union cavalry had descended on the rustic Georgia town to apprehend him. After a short time packing necessities, and no time to send word to his family, he boarded a Union train bound for Washington D.C.
It wasn’t until nine days later, while afloat off the coast of Virginia, that he learned his destination had been rerouted to Boston.
“I knew then that Fort Warren was to be my place of imprisonment.”
It’s been difficult, as of late, for Boston to maintain its distinction as one of the foremost liberal, progressive, tolerant, and accepting cities in the country.
Twice this year the city’s solemn Holocaust Memorial was shattered by projectiles hurled by locals, the first in June by a Roxbury man, the second on Monday by a Malden 17-year-old. Prior, since its dedication in 1995, it had stood unscathed.
Boston was called the most racist city by SNL cast member Michael Che. Baseball player Adam Jones was subjected to racial slurs in the outfield of Fenway Park.
On a fairly regular basis, it seems, incidents and encounters such as these teem to the surface, tearing the scar of racism before it’s ever been fully healed — if it ever can be. And almost every time Boston residents recall about its most infamous race-related moment: busing.
Heirloom portrait of Robert E. Lee sitting in my closet.
One fond memory of a trip to Gettysburg National Park consisted of my siblings, my cousins, and myself participating in a juvenile reenactment of the battle, complete with replica hats, jackets, and a discussion of soldierly life.
The instillment of the Civil War era in my life made it so the very idea of the conflict edged unassumingly along the spectrum of familiarity to complacency; to me Lee was always more of a character in a dramatic historical play, more protagonist than antagonist.
Consequently, I never considered the differing perspectives various people might have of the portrait of Robert E. Lee that hung in my childhood home, stoically placed as if the general himself were keeping watch over us.
I never thought twice about asking my parents for the portrait when they moved out of their house and downsized to a condo lacking abundant of wall space for Lee to reside.
Famed poet-naturalist Henry David Thoreau once stood atop a lookout tower on the highest point in Massachusetts above sea level and described the expanse of the vista using one overarching word: cloudland.
When Thoreau visited the summit of Mount Greylock, protruding 3,491 feet into the sky, the surrounding valleys in the earth far below as well as the scattered communities throughout the landscape were all completely shrouded in mist. Where on a clear day one can see as far as 90 miles in almost all directions, Thoreau was treated instead to an endless display of rolling, hazy clouds.
Wrote Thoreau in 1844,
“As the light increased I discovered around me an ocean of mist which by chance reached up to exactly the base of the tower, and shut out every vestige of the earth, while I was left floating on this fragment of the wreck of the world, on my carved plank in cloudland; a situation which required, no aid from the imagination to render it impressive.”
On our journey to Mount Greylock, the path took us in some of Thoreau’s footsteps before we struck out on the stoic Appalachian Trail, which spans more than 2,000 miles from Maine to Georgia, 90 of which pass through Massachusetts.
In today’s United States, racial and socioeconomic tensions are amplified by the rapidity of Internet sharing. The senseless death of a young minority by the member of an historically oppressive race can ignite the emotions of Americans from one corner of the country to the other in a matter of minutes, like a spark in a tinderbox on a bed of kindling.
Cities are attempting to revise the mindsets of those who harbor racist sympathies and to promote race equality by taking aim at the tangible symbols that evoke sentiments of inequality.
In New Orleans, for example, “adversaries marched in a second-line parade to the traffic circle where [Confederate General Robert E.] Lee’s statue stands — centurion-like, stationed above the treeline atop a white stone pedestal — to protest the monument’s place in the circle and to bury Lee’s place in history, which some revere and others revile.”
The basic argument against monuments like Lee’s in New Orleans is that Lee was the leader of the Confederate Army which fought and killed on behalf of a loose band of belligerent, secessionist states that advocated for the institution of slavery — i.e., Lee is one of the de facto faces of slavery in America and is undeserving of celebratory recognition.
Conversely, there are those who think preserving the legacy of Confederate soldiers who laid down their lives for a certain belief is something of a civic and moral obligation. Individually those rebels are ancestors; collectively they comprise a regional heritage.
I happen to think that when it comes to contentious memorials such as those of notorious Confederates, they should be considered on a case-by-case basis.
When it comes to Lee, I happen to think he should be lauded. Jefferson Davis, no thank you.