Statues and Flags

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Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner-stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition.

Alexander Stephens, Vice President of the Confederacy, “Cornerstone Speech” March 21, 1861

People don’t like to hear what they don’t like to hear. 

It will be hard to make a more obvious or circular statement than this.

Nonetheless, I think this explains a whole metric feces ton of what we’re seeing—and arguing about—now.

If a person in my hometown had raped and murdered my grandmother but had also started a number of businesses and helped the town prosper economically, how should I respond to the statue in his honor?

If you lived two thousand miles away from my hometown, and I had to walk past this statue at least twice every day and get reminded, over and over, how my grandmother died, why my mother lived with such trauma and pain throughout her life, would you argue for that statue to remain so we can remember the honorable history of industry in our country?

We don’t like to hear what we don’t like to hear.

What if that statue got erected not during–or even right after–the rapist-murderer-businessman’s lifetime, nor during my mother’s life, but just twenty years ago, and consciously to remind me that I can do nothing to change how I or my children still get (mis)treated in our town?

Does that change anything?

Frankly, it’s bizarre that people who have nothing to do with a town in the South argue against the removal of a statue that reminds blacks who live there that their great-grandmothers watched their husbands get lynched there. Is it really the best way to “preserve our history” to celebrate people who did evil with monuments put up generations after they died and erected for the express purpose of terrorizing black citizens during both the “Jim Crow Era” and the fight for Civil Rights?

But we don’t like to hear what we don’t like to hear.

So we change the argument. We make it about “erasing our history.” Would your history in this country be erased if that statue in that southern town, where you’ve never visited and likely never will, came down?

But it’s the idea, right? “If we start taking down statues, where does it end? The political correctness just ramps up and they start wiping out everything that doesn’t fit their politically correct agenda. Everything this country stood for, everything that helped build this country, gets erased and we give in to feeling guilty and ashamed about what should be a source of our pride.”

As Jesus followers, I think we need to look at this differently.

Does following Jesus mean standing with and advocating for the people whose grandmothers were raped and grandfathers were lynched? Or does it mean defending our country’s “history,” the story we want to believe about how we got here, however that might conflict with the historical evidence?

We don’t like to hear what we don’t like to hear.

I had more thoughts but I’m going to share an AP history teacher’s Q&A instead, because it’s better than what I had and, surprisingly, completes the argument better.

From someone who teaches AP US History: 

If you are confused as to why so many Americans are defending the confederate flag, monuments, and statues right now, I put together a quick Q&A, with questions from a hypothetical person with misconceptions and answers from my perspective as an AP U.S. History Teacher:

Q: What did the Confederacy stand for?

A: Rather than interpreting, let’s go directly to the words of the Confederacy’s Vice President, Alexander Stephens. In his “Cornerstone Speech” on March 21, 1861, he stated “The Constitution… rested upon the equality of races. This was an error. Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner-stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.”

Q: But people keep saying heritage, not hate! They think the purpose of the flags and monuments are to honor confederate soldiers, right?

A: The vast majority of confederate flags flying over government buildings in the south were first put up in the 1960’s during the Civil Rights Movement. So for the first hundred years after the Civil War ended, while relatives of those who fought in it were still alive, the confederate flag wasn’t much of a symbol at all. But when Martin Luther King, Jr. and John Lewis were marching on Washington to get the Civil Rights Act (1964) and Voting Rights Act (1965) passed, leaders in the south felt compelled to fly confederate flags and put up monuments to honor people who had no living family members and had fought in a war that ended a century ago. Their purpose in doing this was to exhibit their displeasure with black people fighting for basic human rights that were guaranteed to them in the 14th and 15th Amendments but being withheld by racist policies and practices.

Q: But if we take down confederate statues and monuments, how will we teach about and remember the past?

A: Monuments and statues pose little educational relevance, whereas museums, the rightful place for Confederate paraphernalia, can provide more educational opportunities for citizens to learn about our country’s history. The Civil War is important to learn about, and will always loom large in social studies curriculum. Removing monuments from public places and putting them in museums also allows us to avoid celebrating and honoring people who believed that tens of millions of black Americans should be legal property. 

Q: But what if the Confederate flag symbol means something different to me?

A: Individuals aren’t able to change the meaning of symbols that have been defined by history. When I hang a Bucs flag outside my house, to me, the Bucs might represent the best team in the NFL, but to the outside world, they represent an awful NFL team, since they haven’t won a playoff game in 18 years. I can’t change that meaning for everyone who drives by my house because it has been established for the whole world to see. If a Confederate flag stands for generic rebellion or southern pride to you, your personal interpretation forfeits any meaning once you display it publicly, as its meaning takes on the meaning it earned when a failed regime killed hundreds of thousands of Americans in an attempt to destroy America and keep black people enslaved forever. 

Q: But my uncle posted a meme that said the Civil War/Confederacy was about state’s rights and not slavery?

A: “A state’s right to what?” – John Green

Q: Everyone is offended about everything these days. Should we take everything down that offends anyone?

A: The Confederacy literally existed to go against the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, and the idea that black people are human beings that deserve to live freely. If that doesn’t upset or offend you, you are un-American. 

Q: Taking these down goes against the First Amendment and freedom of speech, right?

A: No. Anyone can do whatever they want on their private property, on their social media, etc. Taking these down in public, or having private corporations like NASCAR ban them on their properties, has literally nothing to do with the Bill of Rights. 

Q: How can people claim to be patriotic while supporting a flag that stood for a group of insurgent failures who tried to permanently destroy America and killed 300,000 Americans in the process? 

A: No clue.

Q: So if I made a confederate flag my profile picture, or put a confederate bumper sticker on my car, what am I declaring to my friends, family, and the world?

A: That you support the Confederacy. To recap, the Confederacy stands for: slavery, white supremacy, treason, failure, and a desire to permanently destroy Selective history as it supports white supremacy. 

It’s no accident that: 

You learned about Helen Keller instead of W.E.B, DuBois

You learned about the Watts and L.A. Riots, but not Tulsa or Wilmington. 

You learned that George Washington’s dentures were made from wood, rather than the teeth from slaves. 

You learned about black ghettos, but not about Black Wall Street. 

You learned about the New Deal, but not “red lining.”

You learned about Tommie Smith’s fist in the air at the 1968 Olympics, but not that he was sent home the next day and stripped of his medals. 

You learned about “black crime,” but white criminals were never lumped together and discussed in terms of their race. 

You learned about “states rights” as the cause of the Civil War, but not that slavery was mentioned 80 times in the articles of secession. 

Privilege is having history rewritten so that you don’t have to acknowledge uncomfortable facts. 

Racism is perpetuated by people who refuse to learn or acknowledge this reality. 

You have a choice. 

–Jim Golden

If Mr. Golden’s answers offended or upset you, please consider why. 

We don’t like to hear what we don’t like to hear, but that doesn’t mean what we’re hearing is wrong. 

If everything I don’t like hearing is therefore automatically untrue, I have more maturing to do. Maturity means learning to distinguish between “I don’t like that” and “that’s not true.” 

We all have more maturing to do, don’t we?

**I was just preparing to hit “publish” when I stumbled on this essay, “You Want a Confederate Monument? My Body is a Confederate Monument” by Caroline Randall Williams. Again, it makes the argument I’m trying to make, but much more powerfully and personally. What I was trying to describe is her direct lineage.

I have rape-colored skin. My light-brown-blackness is a living testament to the rules, the practices, the causes of the Old South.

If there are those who want to remember the legacy of the Confederacy, if they want monuments, well, then, my body is a monument. My skin is a monument.

Dead Confederates are honored all over this country — with cartoonish private statues, solemn public monuments and even in the names of United States Army bases. It fortifies and heartens me to witness the protests against this practice and the growing clamor from serious, nonpartisan public servants to redress it. But there are still those — like President Trump and the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell — who cannot understand the difference between rewriting and reframing the past. I say it is not a matter of “airbrushing” history, but of adding a new perspective.

I am a black, Southern woman, and of my immediate white male ancestors, all of them were rapists. My very existence is a relic of slavery and Jim Crow.

Caroline Randall Williams (@caroranwill) is the author of “Lucy Negro, Redux” and “Soul Food Love,” and a writer in residence at Vanderbilt University.

Please read her whole essay and let it sink in.

We don’t like to hear what we don’t like to hear–but we need to hear it so badly. I do.

6 thoughts on “Statues and Flags

  1. Teresa Musselman

    Thanks, as always, for stating what is in my heart. I had already read both references you included, and I had intended to repost them at that time. The trouble is, the people who most need to read them are the same people who don’t want to read them and refuse to be moved by them. A Catch-22.

    • Thanks, Teresa. That feels like the Catch-22 I’m most struggling with right now. That’s why I tried to address that head on: “I know we don’t want to hear what we don’t want to hear.” I struggle to change that in myself, so I know I can’t change it in someone else. But somehow a lot of people have changed. God gets through to hearts, including ours, right? So we just have to keep looking for ways to say it.

      At least, that’s what helps me not to give up hope.

  2. Jim Allyn

    I went and read the entire article. Wow. Just wow.

    “I am a black, Southern woman, and of my immediate white male ancestors, all of them were rapists. My very existence is a relic of slavery and Jim Crow.”

    “As far as family history has always told, and as modern DNA testing has allowed me to confirm, I am the descendant of black women who were domestic servants and white men who raped their help.”

    “The black people I come from were owned by the white people I come from.”

    Wow. If you haven’t yet read the entire article, you owe it to yourself to do it now. Right now.

  3. Hi, Mike. Long-time friend, first-time blog reader (Well, maybe not first-time. I think I’ve read a few posts in the past). Susan forwarded me your post on Statues and Flags. Thanks for drilling down to the heart of the matter and including perspectives from others who have a lot of knowledge on the subject and personal experience. These are hard times for all of us to navigate, but I think we would all benefit greatly from taking a deep breath and relinquishing some of our perceived “rights” in the spirit of humility and loving others, even those we don’t always understand or agree with. Thank you for always being an encouragement to me. I just hit the “Subscribe” button, so be encouraged, but you know, don’t let it go to your head or anything.

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