Jane Greenway Carr: White supremacists fighting to keep Confederate monuments are trying to simplify America's complicated past
If it's really about "defending history," then the lives of African-Americans during and after the Civil War should be represented in public spaces, she writes
Editor’s Note: Jane Greenway Carr is an opinion producer at CNN. She holds a PhD from NYU and was an ACLS/Mellon Public Fellow at New America. She is the co-founder of The Brooklyn Quarterly. The views expressed here are solely hers.
Charlottesville is where I learned what history is and isn’t, and who I wanted to become. I posed for graduation and wedding photos in the shadow of the Rotunda at the University of Virginia, elated to be starting a new life pursuing further post-graduate study and building a family. It’s a campus and a town that will always feel a bit like home to me.
The world saw a very different Charlottesville last weekend, a place overrun by a mob of white men screaming, “You will not replace us,” and “Jews will not replace us,” torches illuminating their contorted faces. A place where racist intimidation and violence – helmeted marchers carrying shields and clubs and semiautomatic weapons, a car plowing into a crowd of counterprotesters – jarringly upended the world’s perception of a serene and sophisticated college town.
The white supremacists in Charlottesville said they wanted to “defend history” by protesting efforts to take down Confederate monuments. They say they feel threatened. They fear the removal of “white stories” from our culture.
I used to teach African-American literature and cultural history. I wish I could tell them what real erasure looks like. I’d ask them to think about the memorials that never existed in public spaces in the South – noting Richmond’s past as a slave market, or the communities of free blacks who were terrorized by the installation of these Confederate monuments in the first place. To take down Charlottesville’s statue of Robert E. Lee will not change the fact that all Virginia schoolchildren know his name, while the names of those who lived in the lost Charlottesville neighborhood of Vinegar Hill are forgotten.
I keep returning to the question: how can people who claim to love history get the meaning of history so very, very wrong?
This isn’t the first time people with hate in their hearts have marched in a place I know and love.
I was born and raised in Memphis – home to barbecue, Elvis, the blues, and the place where, on April 4, 1968, James Earl Ray took the life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. On January 17, 1998 the Ku Klux Klan came to downtown Memphis to protest naming a national holiday for King. I remember the feeling of hate coming home. I was almost an adult at the time, but I wished my grandfather were still alive so I could crawl into his lap and feel all right with the world.
Far fewer of us in Memphis grew up knowing the name of Ida B. Wells, who was an editor and journalist in my hometown before she became an iconic anti-lynching activist. After three of her friends were lynched in 1892, she published an editorial in her paper (the Memphis Free Speech) denouncing the act and urging black Memphians to leave the city. She was rewarded with death threats and a life of exile – where she went on to become one of the country’s most significant (though inadequately celebrated) figures in civil rights, social justice, feminism and journalism.
The Klan marched in Memphis again in 2013, this time to protest the city council’s decision to rename parks named for Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy, and Nathan Bedford Forrest, a Confederate general and the first grand wizard of the KKK. Around the same time, a movement also began to erect a monument to Ida B. Wells in one of those parks. Wells’ life was remembered locally mostly by out-of-the-way plaques, the kind you see at a glance from a car window.
The images from Memphis in 2013 stayed with me: police in riot gear and robed men holding flags emblazoned with a noxious mash-up of a swastika and the Stars and Stripes. Then as now, across the South, efforts to engage honestly with history, to restore public spaces so they are welcoming to all, were sparks for conflagrations of violence and hatred.
In New Orleans, Confederate monuments were removed this year under cover of darkness to avoid threats of violence against contractors and workers. “These statues are not just stone and metal,” the mayor, Mitch Landrieu, said in an emotional speech. “These monuments celebrate a fictional, sanitized Confederacy; ignoring the death, ignoring the enslavement, ignoring the terror that it actually stood for.”
Emotions run high on this issue. Nothing in the South is simple. Very little about the Civil War is simple.
Elizabeth Keckley knew that first hand. A dressmaker and former slave, she is best known from her memoir “Behind the Scenes: Or, Thirty Years a Slave and Four Years in the White House” – a postbellum slave narrative and portrait of the First Family, especially Mary Todd Lincoln. But she had also created designs for powerful Southern women, including the wives of Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis. So close was Keckley to the Davis family, that when they left to go South after secession, Varina implored Elizabeth to join them. The book contains a deeply vulnerable moment between Keckley and Jefferson Davis, a moment which humanizes a man whom many view as the figurehead of an effort to obliterate America.
I have now taught Keckley’s autobiography to students many times; I first discussed it in a seminar room just yards from where the men with torches stood on Friday night.