On the collapse of Confederate monuments
Missing the daily roll call
One of the consequences of the popular (multi-ethnic, anti-racist, anti-police brutality, and pro Black Lives Matter) movement that emerged after the death George Floyd and other black people killed by the police was the altering of urban public spaces.
Dozens of streets, plazas, parks, and high human traffic areas that until now were relatively quiet homes to monuments erected to colonialists, slave traffickers, slave owners, and high- ranking southern military traitors to the Union suddenly came under public scrutiny.
In many of these places, long-familiar residents in the national guesthouse of statues were no longer able to respond to the roll call of white supremacy. TV cameras depicted many of these absentee figures as contemporary Humpty Dumpties, collapsed on the ground, surrounded by multicolored graffiti of anonymous avengers and combatants in a new battle of cultural symbols (sometimes history needs a little push).
A second group of figures—the lucky ones—were given last minute asylum in nearby museums. The rest, given their limited floating skills, sleep with the fishes at the bottom of oceans and rivers.
A new discourse on monuments
Currently, there are approximately 1,500 to 2,000 Confederate statues and monuments still standing around the US. The debate surrounding them, along with other symbols like the public display of the Confederate Flag, has begun to take a new shape in the public discourse.
The battlefield is occupied by two main forces: those who proclaim the need to unmask and come to terms with the long history of racism and economic inequality that has marked and still prevails in American history. The second force includes those who through numerous methods (economic, social, political, and/or ideological) have benefited from racist and inequitable conditions and continue to do so.
The first group is well-represented in the massive number of protestors over the past eight weeks. The second group consists primarily of devout members of ultra-right organizations and pro-Trump Republicans. The Presidential signing of the “Executive Order on Protecting American Monuments, Memorials and Statues, ” in which Trump criminalizes civilian dissent and cynically accuses protesters of dishonoring “the American past” and ignoring, or erasing history is part of this context. (Never mind that Trump didn’t hesitate to shrink the size of approximately 30 national monuments located in indigenous lands in order to facilitate non-indigenous owned business enterprises.)
Because monuments are, well, silent for the most part, they often pass unremarked. The following observations are offered as one way to interpret those silent monuments, particularly the ones erected to celebrate Confederate themes.
Evading meaning: An impossibility, even for the Irish
Monuments, statues, and memorials are not meaningless. Nor they are unintentional, or socially irrelevant. They have meaning at all stages of their existence, from the moment they are conceived, to the moments when they are built, displayed, and interpreted, long after that initial conception.
Monuments symbolize something specific like an idea, a real or mythological character, an historical event, or a vision of the future. There is no escape from meaning, even in the curious case of those witty Irish who, a hundred and twenty plus years ago, resolved to erect a Monument to Nothing, stating specifically: “On this site in 1897 nothing happened.“
Despite their aim for it to mean nothing, the monument (which still stands in Galway City) represented, or referred to, the dullness of life in the area, coupled with an implicit assumption that more interesting things happened elsewhere. Monuments cannot avoid being affected by the social reality that makes them possible.
They are the product of the intellectual and physical labor of social human beings and necessarily carry the marks of the reality that exists at the time of their construction. Monuments are doomed to be social rather than ethereal in nature. To be social means being interconnected with life, social classes and institutions existing and acting in a given society. Put another way, both in form and meaning, monuments are products of their social histories.
Monuments as a form
If we look at monuments strictly as structures in the shape of a statue or a memorial, the monument’s specific form tells us about the conscious or unconscious intentionality behind what is represented. In the case of the Irish men and women, notice they did not go to the beach and write their caustic message about Galway City on the sand. No, they chose to raise a monument because they wanted their message to withstand the passing of time in a specific medium—a lasting monumental structure—with a much longer life span than ephemeral writing on the beach, or a message on the wall of an Irish pub.
Monuments seek to make a point not only in reference to the message conveyed in the identity of the monument, but the form itself becomes part of the message since it requires physical prominence. To use an analogy, think of monuments displayed inside churches, like saints and icons. They are strategically located, and most important, they are carefully chosen to be seen. This means that other monuments have been chosen not to be seen—they have been excluded, and thus robbed of historical significance in that particular church.
Monuments as ideology
In the case of Confederate monuments, the list of individuals carefully chosen to be seen includes slave traffickers, slave owners and high ranking southern military traitors to the Union. Perhaps no other Confederate ‘bad hombre’ illustrates better the racist and white supremacy ideology of monuments than that of slave trader, Confederate officer and Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, Nathan Bedford Forrest. He was a notorious war criminal who conducted the Fort Pillow massacre of 1864, slaughtering over 300 hundred unarmed Union soldiers who had surrendered. According to the blog Working Class History: “They murdered most of the Black soldiers and roughly one third of the whites: burning some alive, crucifying others and hacking people to death.”
Today there are statues of Forrest in Georgia and Tennessee: schools, streets, and buildings bear his name. What’s more, in an act of racist nostalgia, Forrest’s 199th birthday was officially celebrated by the state of Tennessee (July 13, 2020). Many on the right would argue that Forrest and other characters represented in Confederate monuments are part of American history. They would be accurate, as many half-truths are, in a superficial but misleading way.
Generating a false history
These monuments represent a unilateral version of history, a version that has been edited, distorted, glamorized, and romanticized by the beneficiaries of such distortions, that is to say, white hegemonic political, economic, and social institutions. A crass example of this notorious proclivity to generate and ingest falsification is found in some inscriptions on Forrest’s monuments: “He fought like a titan and struck like a god. And his dust is our ashes of glory.”
If the Confederate mind attributes divine characteristics to slave traffickers and war criminals, and has no problem erecting monuments to such individuals, it is not surprising that the rest of their narrative about American history comes as a pastiche of self-serving voices, whose origins can be traced back to the beginnings of the black slave-labor based economy.
The other missing monuments
This economy was perpetuated through the Civil War, Reconstruction, and the Jim Crow period with some mutations. As Michelle Alexander notes in The New Jim Crow, the systemic racism and police brutality experienced by black people in the US today traces its roots back to this economic, political and ideological model.
Confederate monuments exclude representation of black people’s experiences, erasing by their silence the systematic exploitation of black people, robbing them of their historical significance.
It is not accidental that there are no confederate, or right-wing monuments celebrating black people’s lives, their suffering and struggles and the human cost of their survival. Black people simply did not matter except as cheap generators of surplus value and profits. Any accurate representation of the real material conditions of black people would have required pointing an incriminating finger at the historical delusions of American democracy. Monuments, thus, must be understood as interrelated parts of a system of ideas displayed in a specific structural form, precisely in order to reinforce ideological systems.
The limits of moral indignation
Empty pedestals and images of dismounted equestrian figures have given place to two kinds of moral indignation. One is represented by right-wing Republicans and the Trump administration in an effort simultaneously to contain the forces of popular discontent and to preserve the monumental fetishes of white supremacism. The other form of moral indignation recognizes the existing infamies of American racism. And yet as Lenin put it, moral indignation alone “does not tell us one word as to how these institutions arose, why they existed, and what role they played in history.”
The last statue standing
To unearth one of the deepest taproots of systemic racism in the US, an additional monument needs to come down. The Wall Street Bull, representing the optimism that befits the beneficiaries of capitalism and everyone else who hopes one day to be such a beneficiary in spite of centuries of evidence to the contrary.
It provides no visual reference to the suffering experienced by the large majority of American people. Especially now, when lack of access to health care, food, affordable housing, quality child care, quality education and meaningful work affects more people than ever before in US history. Yet the Wall Street Bull remains standing, a quiet testament to the deep ideological roots of capitalism within this country as the only conceivable way of life. It, too, needs to come down.
Enrique Quintero serves on the WIP Publishing Committee.