September 24, 2017

Removing Confederate Monuments

New Orleans: Old "St. Louis Hotel" b...
New Orleans: Old "St. Louis Hotel" building. Inside the rotunda dome, with view of stage which had served as a slave auction block before the American Civil War. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Even though my parents never had much money when I was growing up, they made a point of taking as many family road trips as they could afford. They believed it was good for me to travel and to experience as much of what was out there as they could manage. These trips were almost always done as cheaply as possible, driving older vehicles and camping. I did not always appreciate everything about these trips or the sights we saw at the time, but I am certainly grateful for them today.

When I saw this article in The Guardian ("No question: my Virginia town's 'slave block' should be removed from our sight"), I thought back to some of the experiences that stood out to me from traveling as a child. I remember the impact of seeing things like the slave auction block mentioned in the article. I remember making my parents try to explain what could have made people think it was okay to sell other people. I remember confronting some terrible aspects of our history as I came face-to-face with its symbols. These experiences were not pleasant, but I can't help thinking that they might have been beneficial in some ways.

Symbols like this would have still had an impact if I had encountered them in museums, but I'm not sure they would have had nearly as much of an impact. In fact, I saw enough of them in museums to say that they had much less impact in that setting. Visiting a museum displaying artifacts is no substitute for walking a Civil War battlefield, and the feelings I experienced while standing on the ground where slave auctions were held were far more intense than those I recall from any museum.

Of course, I understand why many people (especially Black people) are not interested in having monuments to slavery or the Confederacy in their towns. I can't say I blame them. In fact, I tend to come down on their side: symbols which cause this much pain to this many people probably ought to be removed. For example, I think that the state of Mississippi needs to change our state flag. Whatever benefit exposure to these symbols might have provided me as a child seems trivial when compared to the pain they cause others who must pass them every day.

My point here is that we might be losing something by banishing some historic monuments to museums and history books. And if we decide that what we are losing has any value, we might want to give some thought to how else we can accomplish it. I suspect there are ways to do so that do not require us to maintain these monuments in public spaces.