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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.

(CNN) —  

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.

Jane Greenway Carr
PHOTO: John Nowak
Jane Greenway Carr

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.

As I attempt to process what’s happened in Charlottesville, I keep returning for solace to the conversations I had about race and history in those seminar rooms. I mourn Heather Heyer. I know it could have been one of my former teachers or classmates who still live there and who were, like Heather Heyer, on the streets to defend the tolerance, the openness of thought and mind we all learned at UVA.

What angers me most about the white supremacists who came to Charlottesville isn’t just their views or their hate. It is their apparent rejection of anything complicated; their lazy belief that history is a zero sum game with easy equivalences. They believe that if we acknowledge – by removing or contextualizing them – that many Confederate monuments were not attempts to record history as it happened but a direct effort to marginalize people of color to shape a whiter future, then we deny where they came from. They appear to think that if the world says Black Lives Matter, then white lives must matter less.

That just isn’t how history – or the real world, for that matter – works. History is messy, and at its best, it is an uneasy and beautiful patchwork built from the raw places where the hegemony of the powerful and the resistance of the marginalized rub away at each other, revealing something broken but new. Those raw places are our opening to make progress; without them, we are lost.

The alt-right’s approach to history, meanwhile, is the ultimate in intellectual entitlement. It embraces toxic myopia, a failure of imagination that has in other eras been a dire warning: the first step toward the worst of human evil.

When these young white men shout, “Jews will not replace us,” who is the “us?” Do they even know? I’m a white Southerner too, and I want to understand how they have come to believe that this lazy form of history is enough. If I believe Ida B. Wells is more deserving of public recognition than Nathan Bedford Forrest, does that mean I am trying to erase them? I refuse to believe the answer is yes.

I don’t want to erase white supremacists from public view. Beyond being a scholar and a believer in the First Amendment, I also contend that all of us need to know white supremacy exists in America in 2017 so we can do something about it.

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I can’t un-see the images from Charlottesville; none of us can. But that is a small burden to bear compared with the ones being borne across America right now by every person of color and every person of good faith who feels under siege by the forces of corrosive anger and racism on the prowl in our nation. The Confederacy doesn’t need preserving, and to paraphrase the artist John Sims, it doesn’t need resurrecting – it needs exorcising.

Last Sunday, members of the Memphis community stood in what is now Health Sciences Park to show support for those who were injured and killed in Charlottesville. They did so in front of the statue of Nathan Bedford Forrest that still stands in the park that no longer bears his name.

There is work – so much work – to do to find our way forward, and we must all take our histories – the good and the bad – with us in that task. We are listening, Charlottesville.