“For the third time in a few months,” the BBC reported on Sunday, “white nationalists descended on the small, liberal city of Charlottesville in the southern state of Virginia, to protest against the planned removal of a statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee.”
I don’t have anything more to add about the tragic death, white supremacy and neo-Nazis. For that angle, I recommend this incredibly hard-hitting 20 minute documentary from Vice. For historical background and further general comment, Robert Paul Wolff, my favourite living philosopher and former professor of African American studies at the University of Massachusetts, has that in succinct chunks over at his blog (notably these, three, posts).
Instead, I want to confront the issue at the centre of this; the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee, the greatest Confederate general of the American Civil War, from Emancipation Park in the centre of Charlottesville, Virginia. Disregarding for a moment their racist beliefs, don’t the white supremacists have a point here? As President Trump noted in his press conference yesterday, “you’re changing history, you’re changing culture“. Shouldn’t we be alongside them defending the rewriting, the ‘whitewashing’ of history to suit our ‘PC age’?
We should not. Our current national histories and the culture they espouse privilege a particular white male, often born into immense wealth and power, full of racist, misogynistic ideas. These figures are not representative of the full history of our societies, and their commemoration does not help us build national strength and prosperous futures. We must write our national histories inclusively and compassionately.
Lee was undoubtedly a very skilled general at a seminal moment in US history, but he was also an avowed racist who fought to continue slavery, in part because he believed it “necessary for their instruction as a race”.
What this statue, sitting proudly in the centre of a city, says to African Americans in America is this: The history of America, that is the history we are taught in textbooks at school – the history of important people doing important things and life for everyone being different afterwards – is the history of white people.
Clearly semantically, everyone has a history of some sort that can be traced and to a certain extent verified. This is the definition of the word history. This can be a personal history of their lived life, or a family history, going back generations, or the history of a culture or social or political or religious group they feel a part of, or others of the same gender, or the same race and so on. The major political and social grouping of our time is the nation state. It is in the context of the nation that most our present history is written, and past history understood. Almost all of us live our lives as British, Chinese or American before any other allegiance, and view history through this lens, regardless of how the people at the time probably considered their own political grouping. National history is the history that matters.
Having statues of Confederate military leaders occupying the most important public places in southern states is a statement that when it comes to this history that matters, African Americans aren’t a part of it.
In the great recorded history of the United States (and at this point I am talking both about the history that has already been written about, and the history that is being made every day) the role ascribed to African Americans is invariably the silent, the oppressed, the inferior. The role, and potential role in the history to come, of white men is of the leader, the genius, the billionaire, the war hero, the discoverer of new lands.
During the civil war, many great, heroic white men fought bravely to free African Americans from their bondage. Many equally heroic white men fought for the confederacy, to keep their human property and their way of life. In this seminal moment in the national history of the USA, African Americans, so we are told and shown every day, were the passive recipients of the white man’s history. Like autumn leaves buffeted about in the wind, millions of them lived in freedom or died in bondage on the whim of great, white men.
Include all histories
Now, you might argue that well it would be lovely in an ideal world if there were great black leaders who had been leading the charge at Custer’s Last Stand, or signing the declaration of independence alongside Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, but history has been made by the white men, who often treated other humans abominably, so they’re the ones with the busts everywhere.
But during the civil war, and before, and afterwards, there were countless great, heroic African American individuals. In fact, how could anyone possibly believe that the American Civil War – at least in large part about the emancipation of slaves – didn’t involve African American figures of tremendous courage and import?
Furthermore, since African Americans have lived in the United States for practically as long as Caucasians, constituting 10-20% of the total population throughout history, only someone ideologically invested in white supremacy (and I’m not implying that this occurs on a conscious level) could believe that current portrayals of history in public places are remotely representative of actual, lived history.
What of the slaves who led revolts? Who secured their own freedom then worked tirelessly to end slavery? Who fought bravely? Who used what minimal autonomy afforded in their subjugation to defy their oppressors and improve the conditions of their fellow slaves? What of the great African Americans of culture?
They are assumed not to exist because they aren’t studied, or if they are, their achievements do not match up to those of great white men. For example, there is only one name most people learn and one name most people know when it comes to ending the slave trade in the British Empire. What does the national commemoration of Wilberforce say to our Black British citizens? What does it say of their and our future possibilities as an inclusive, egalitarian nation?
Write and Rewrite
My message, beyond offering solidarity to those opposing these white nationalists every time they descend on Charlottesville, is this: In 2017, in our modern, democratic nations, which purport to be inclusive but in many respects clearly aren’t, we must engage in a project that many will instinctively deride as ‘rewriting history’. We must make room for the public display of history – the full history of our nations – that includes all our citizens of all genders, classes, colours and creeds. This may be accomplished by adding portraits, sculptures and other public works to sit alongside those already on display. But where public space is limited, should include removal and replacement.
I would, in fact, go further. All history, but in particular national history, is not told, it is written. The writing of national history is the writing of our national selves and our future national possibilities. We cannot keep writing nations that privilege rich, white, racist men and all of the divisiveness their lives embody. Currently, the widespread presence of statues of men like Robert E. Lee, who dedicated his life to shutting down possibilities, serve only to weigh us down. When our citizens read their national history, they must see versions of themselves. They must see people who stood for the kinds of things they stand for. Their national history should inspire them and offer example.