The Confederacy was the only nation on the face of the Earth ever created for the express purpose of defending the crime against humanity that was slavery. Forget the old explanation of the Lost Cause, the euphemism “state sovereignty.” Unlike the US Constitution, the Confederate States of America’s (CSA) founding document actually prohibited its own states from abolishing race-based slavery or even passing any lesser law “denying or impairing the right of property in negro slaves.”
We can hardly be surprised that President Trump doesn’t understand what the CSA stood for. Where does it stop, he asked, referring to the increasing outcry against Confederate monuments. Are the founding fathers who owned slaves next in line? The Confederates themselves drew a straight line between the two “rebels” Washington and Lee, but the pretended equivalence is as spurious as “state sovereignty,” historians remind us. We can contain this iconoclasm, they suggest, and hold the line at the monuments of the Confederacy.
But will it be so easy? White supremacy is in the DNA of this nation and has left its traces large and small across the commemorative landscape, shaping US history and identity.
The grand monuments to the so-called “heroes” of the Confederacy in Baltimore, Charlottesville, Richmond, and elsewhere are the signature pieces that draw the admiration and attention of overt hate groups and Confederate heritage activists. At this point, local governments see the need to remove them if only to protect public safety. Yet the organizations that built these grand monuments also took care to insinuate the Confederacy into almost every corner of public life — in street names, school names, military bases, historic homes, and markers. In the 1890s, with the rise of openly white supremacist state and local governments, the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC) among others embarked on a systematic campaign of commemoration that extended from monument building to rewriting school textbooks and sponsoring rituals for white schoolchildren. While much of the overt indoctrination is now gone, the material traces of this campaign still permeate cities and small towns.
Even more fundamentally, the history of white supremacy in this country does not begin and end with the CSA and its apologists like the UDC. Behind and before the Confederacy lay the forced removal of Native tribes as well as the conquest of Mexico, both justified as historically inevitable white victories over inferior peoples. And afterward stretched the long history of segregation, which infected the North as well as the South. All of these historical events have had lasting repercussions on indigenous peoples and communities of color, and have left deep and disturbing traces in the memorial landscape.
It is the very ubiquity of these traces that enables (now deposed) Steve Bannon to claim that Trump’s question “connects with the American people about their history, culture, and traditions.” But if we are committed to a more just and inclusive definition of America than Trump’s or Bannon’s or the UDC’s, how do we deal with this overwhelming collection of white supremacist traces in the memorial landscape? We are not in the same position as the Allies were after the defeat of Nazi Germany, when they could remove every offending monument and chisel off every swastika left on public buildings. The work we must do is the much harder work of engaging people of varying opinions and creating a new shared understanding of our history. The process must be constructive as well as destructive.
If there were a clear road map, we would be on it already. Removing and renaming are short-term solutions that may well spark a new dialogue and create a new context, as the descendants of Stonewall Jackson have so eloquently argued. But there are practical issues to be faced. Museums could house some of the memorial detritus but will not be able to cope with the scale of the problem. Post-Soviet style monument graveyards could become new rallying places for hate groups. Reinterpretation hardly ever effectively combats the honorific message of the original memorials or markers. And all of these practical solutions imply a consensus we have not yet achieved.
One way or the other, we will have to embrace Trump’s provocation and do the difficult work of truth and reconciliation, day by day. The commemorative landscape is both a problem and a resource, because almost everywhere we step we find some reminder of a white supremacist past and present. In every obscure marker or street sign is an opportunity to create a lesson plan, to form a local committee, to engage an artist in a creative action. In all these ways we can build understanding, not merely tear down. The work should not stop anywhere, but should go on as long as white supremacy remains with us.
Kirk Savage is a professor of art and architecture history at the University of Pittsburgh and the author of Standing Soldiers, Kneeling Slaves: Race, War, and Monument in Nineteenth-Century America.