There is a lot of talk lately about Confederate statues and whether we should take them down as representative of an oppressive time in our history, or whether we should keep them to remember our past, no matter how shameful. It is a difficult, but important discussion to have. I will admit that I have been curious at times as to why we have monuments and statues to generals and leaders of a failed rebellion. They rose up against the government and constitution of the United States of America, tried to secede and form their own nation, but lost. Why have we built statues to honor men who fought against the government of the United States?
I have family in my history who fought on both sides of the Civil War – literally in one case. My 4th great-grandfather, James Hartley, joined the Union Army, but his younger brother, Jonathan, joined the Confederate Army. The older brother’s unit actually captured his younger brother’s unit, and was allowed to send his injured younger brother home to their mother to nurse him back to health.
I understand that many people want to honor their families and their ancestors. And I can understand a memorial to the Civil War, to soldiers who died on both sides of the war. We should remember the loss of life and the sacrifices that were made. And we should remember these events in their historical context. As I understand US history, the Civil War was not fought solely on the issue of slavery, but that has been the main takeaway for most Americans. And so, most people associate the Civil War primarily with slavery and the Confederacy as a regime that wanted to keep slavery, which we can all now admit was an oppressive and racist practice. And those statues and monuments to the Confederacy serve as constant reminders that there were certain people who wanted to oppress other people and own them because of the color of their skin.
Most of the arguments and discussions I have heard in favor of taking down Confederate statues have to do with just this point, that those statues memorialize proponents of slavery, and as such they memorialize the practice of slavery. It should be obvious why many find these Confederate statues offensive and want them removed.
And there are some who claim that taking down these statues is “erasing” our history, as if we are trying to pretend that the Civil War didn’t happen by not publicly honoring those who fought for the losing side. There is a way to remember our history, even the worst parts of it, in such a way that we can learn from it in order to not repeat it. Germany has done well in this regard, I believe. There are no statues to Hitler or Rudolph Hess or Joseph Goering, but there are memorials to their victims. There are holocaust remembrances and museums that tell the story of those interned at concentration camps and otherwise oppressed and killed. Germany, as a nation, has had a hard struggle with its past the last 70 years, but I think America can learn from them how to deal with a difficult past.
We need to recognize, as a whole nation, that there was a problem. That the slavery and racial oppression was wrong and it should have never happened. We need to be honest and admit fault that, as a nation, we allowed such a practice to exist and to endure. And we need to remember and memorialize the victims. We need to tell their stories, we need to teach their history.
Germany has had trouble, as a nation, in the years following World War II dealing with issues of nationalism and national pride. There is a fine line to be understood between being proud of your nation and believing that you are better than other people simply because of your birth. I was living in Germany during the summer of 2006 when they hosted the soccer World Cup and the German team played very well, finishing 3rd overall. During the tournament, played in stadiums all across Germany, many fans wore jerseys of the players on the German national team, they painted their faces with black, red, and yellow – the colors of the German flag. People even began to fly the German flag from their apartment windows, wave them around in the streets, drape them around their waists as skirts or around their shoulders as capes (which surprised me as an American, because that is not how the American flag should be treated, but to Germans, their flag is just a piece of fabric with colors on it that represent their country. It is not treated with the same sacredness that Americans treat their flag.)
I spoke to a man who was a police officer in the city I was living in, he was a high official within the police department of the state, and he told me that he had never before seen so many people flying the German flag so openly. He said that just a few years earlier people would not have considered flying the German flag, as it would have been seen as nationalistic and reminiscent of the National Socialists or Nazi party. But, the World Cup in Germany did a lot of good for that country. It showed them that it was possible to have national pride, to take pride in the country you live in, without turning it into extreme nationalism, or believing that you are better than others simply based on your place of birth.
The biggest difference I see between Germany’s history and the history of the United States is the long duration of slavery in the United States and then the continuation of oppressive institutionalized racism even after the end of the Civil War with Jim Crow laws and other legislation, that didn’t even completely go away after the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. In Germany, the Nazi party had power from about 1933 until the end of the war in 1945, it was about one generation of Germans who lived under that regime. Most Germans today are remembering that past, but they do not feel personally responsible for it anymore, since they were not involved, their parents were not born yet, and many of their grandparents were not even born yet or were very young children when the Nazis took power. But in America we have been dealing with racial tension and suffering since the beginning and it has never been absolutely resolved. This has existed for many generations in America and racism has become part of the heritage for many Americans, even Americans who oppose racism and inequality are descendants of slave owners and others who helped prop up such racist practices.
There is a need to understand this past and recognize it for what it is – the past, something that needs to end, something that we must admit has happened but that we must vow not to let continue anymore.
But we cannot ignore our history, we cannot sweep the bad parts under the rug and pretend that life has always been great for everyone and there was never any trouble. Perhaps we can do what Warner Brothers has done with some of its cartoons from the early years that reflect racist attitudes of the time. They have not destroyed them in the name of not offending people, they have not edited the offensive parts out, but they have added a statement at the beginning that explains the time in which they were made and providing context, but allowing it to still exist just as it was. We recognize that this was part of our past, this was something we did at one time that we no longer agree with, but we allow it to exist as part of history to show what life was like then, with the proper explanation and information.
But, many of the Confederate statues are extremely offensive to many people. I don’t know if this solution will work for all of them or for all Americans. We should solve this in the American way, through the voice of the people. The local communities should vote on what they want to do with the statues and monuments in their cities and towns. Some may choose to leave them but add additional signage providing historical background for future generations, some may choose to remove them and replace them with other monuments, some may choose to move them to more appropriate locations, such as a museum, where it can continue to exist but with the appropriate explanation of the history and the context of what it represents.
Really, the only solution is what it always is. Many people need to come together and have honest and open conversations and discussions about our past and our present and what we want our future to be. We need to listen to each other with the intent to understand. We need to recognize and understand that America belongs to those who live here, all of us, from all of our varied backgrounds and cultures and heritages. It will be hard, there will be things said that some do not agree with. Not everyone will get everything that they want all of the time. Compromise and understanding must be reached, which has historically been something we have not been that great at as a nation. But I am hopeful, I believe in America and I believe that we can learn to live with our past and plan for a brighter future.