James F. Dator
Just a few hours ago my wife came home crying and shook. She is African American, born and raised in Atlanta. Some fifty years ago her mom was one of the first black students to integrate the University of Georgia, where white men spit on her and hurled racial epithets at her. This morning, as my wife was walking through a grocery store parking lot by herself, a white man rolled by in his truck, raised his middle finger, and called her the N-word.
We live in Baltimore. Last night, we watched the President of the United States, citing his powers of reason and objectivity, equate the actions of people defending equality of all people with those whose guiding logic rests on the side of racial supremacy and genocide. Then this morning we woke up to read that Mayor Pugh personally oversaw the immediate removal of Lost Cause statues, including the one of Roger Taney in Mt. Vernon. She cited the need to protect the citizens of the city in the wake of Charlottesville. In this context, I can’t read the man’s verbal attack of my wife as anything else but a terroristic threat.
When I wrote about my experiences teaching slavery in the wake of the Baltimore uprising for The Panorama several weeks ago, I acknowledged that I had ambivalent feelings about removing the Taney statue. What I did not write clearly (but should have) was that my ambivalence was not at all about some facile idea of “rewriting history.” In fact, that is precisely what the statues did. Instead, my deep concern is that an anti-racist iconoclasm will offer much needed psychological relief but also serve the interests of a more deeply engrained racism and acceptance of inequality. After all, the underlying racism and commitment to inequality has been sustained in the post-Civil Rights Movement era through discursive tricks and legal maneuvers, aspirational but eventually hollowed-out phrases like multiculturalism, and sustained claims of objectivity (see for example Charles Murray; former Google employee James Damore). All of this, of course, has occurred in tandem with a retrenchment of public funds for colleges and universities, greater inequality in K‒12 education, and “wars” over who gets to write textbooks. Without a doubt, if there is one thing that the existence of the Lost Cause monuments should tell us, it is that power loves to sweep history under the rug. Or, even better, to re-cast it in bronze, re-label it as truth, and declare reconciliation at the expense of the institutional and cultural change necessary for true social transformation.
Symbols matter precisely because we give them meaning. We rage and debate over them because they convey deeper sets of relationships—almost all of them shaped by power—that the public can’t be easily put into words. Taking the statues down is a good thing; it is a statement about who we are as a community and what things we value.
But if we leave nothing behind—if we simply remove them and put nothing substantial and institutional in their place—we’ve aided and abetted more of the same historical amnesia that has led us to the present moment. Power will win again, and the virulent, fascistic racism that has for decades slithered its way through college campuses, grocery store parking lots, and possibly now the most powerful office of the U.S. government will continue to rear its terroristic fangs at the innocent.
We are living, as always, in history. So let us see this moment as a tipping point; let’s use the rubble of these falling icons of white supremacy empower us to finally crush the snakes that foolishly gather at their feet. A dustbin for the past will not do. Let us show them that theirs’ is truly a lost cause.
18 August 2017
About the Author
James F. Dator is Assistant Professor of History at Goucher College.