As the United States heads toward another weekend of white supremacist rallies fraught with hate and the specter of violence, President Trump has underscored his legacy as the Great White Nope.
He doubled down on a version of U.S. history in which the traitors and white supremacists who lost the Civil War are yet to be celebrated in monuments and lore, tweeting Thursday: “Sad to see the history and culture of our great country being ripped apart with the removal of our beautiful statues and monuments. … So foolish!”
In musing that the removal of Confederate monuments could one day include those honoring the founding fathers, he overlooks the fact that Confederates were enemies of the state, fighting to keep black people enslaved because all that free labor was too lucrative to let go. Trump’s rhetoric matters because it helps perpetuate what J.T. Roane, a professor of women’s, gender and sexuality studies at the University of Cincinnati, calls an “intergenerational pedagogy of power,” the ways and means of repression.
Another racially fraught democratic society, South Africa, informs how we can proceed with owning our national narrative—a shared one, as researcher Brene Brown suggested this week—instead of letting it own us. Monuments celebrating South Africa’s colonizers, that country’s founders, are protected by law, according to Melissa Levin, a University of Toronto political science professor focusing on nation-building and the work of memory in Namibia and South Africa. At the end of apartheid, democratic states found themselves as caretakers of a vast memorial complex that mostly included apartheid and colonial monuments. There’s a strong relationship between the state and colonial memorials, which are protected by the National Heritage Resources Act.
“You have across the country all of these colonial monuments that still stand,” said Levin. “The only statues that have come down have been statues of apartheid leaders. There seems to be a distinction between pre-apartheid leaders.”
However, a movement is afoot to deal with colonial monuments, as black South Africans can draw a direct line from colonialism to the disenfranchisement wrought by apartheid, according to Douglas Foster, a journalism professor at Northwestern University who has written widely on South African issues. One notable example is a statue of British colonialist Cecil Rhodes, removed from the University of Cape Town campus following the 2015 #RhodesMustFall movement.
“Here we are sitting 150 years after the Civil War finally getting to the question of what kind of public spaces so-called Confederate heroes should have,” Foster said. “In that sense, South Africans provide a model and movement. It seems like awfully old business. That’s what strikes me as the main difference” between how these two countries have dealt with these issues, he said.
Calling it “foolish” to remove imagery celebrating state enemies misses the point — and the opportunity to create a new national narrative that informs better public policy.
No, what’s foolish is the white nationalists who recently swarmed Charlottesville to protest the city’s planned removal of a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, twice the traitor because he resigned from the U.S. Army to fight against his own country, our country. Today, more than 1,500 of these monuments can be found peppered throughout the South, and in places like Boston, San Diego and Phoenix, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.
What’s foolish is the senseless death of Heather Heyer, 32, a peaceful counter-protester run down, as video apparently shows, by Ohioan James Alex Fields, Jr. It’s cruel that these racists celebrated Heyer’s death. This ethos is par for the course for a group of people championed by a pussy-grabbing president who has so dehumanized wide swaths of American society — Muslims, Mexican-Americans and African-Americans — as he seeks to erase them from policy and discourse.
And even more foolish is the plan to take hate on tour, with rallies planned this weekend in places like Boston, Los Angeles, New York, Washington, D.C.; Austin, Atlanta, Pittsburgh and Seattle.
In a country long concerned with infiltration, by the likes of ISIS and Cold War Russia, what is it about “traitor” these people don’t understand? Lee was, and those who celebrate him today are, the traitors within. We should be very afraid. Like, “Get Out” afraid.
There is no question the Civil War was fought to preserve the lucrative institution of slavery. Black bodies were oh, so valuable, the capital that funded the growth of this country, according to Daina Ramey Berry, a historian who wrote The Price for Their Pound of Flesh. In researching her book, Ramey Berry found that black bodies were commodified before birth, during childhood into adulthood, and after death. She documented a robust body-snatching industry that used black bodies for research at schools that exist today. Owning this knowledge doesn’t take anything away from the stories of immigrants who came here seeking opportunity, or the Native American sacrifice: It just clarifies.
So when Trump, the Gaslighter-in-Chief, claims removing Confederate monuments is foolish, he is really saying he wishes 13 percent of the population — the black part — were still enslaved, the ultimate entrepreneurial edge. That thought process is dehumanizing, seeping into the collective psyche if left unchecked.
As emblems of white power, many of these monuments should be destroyed. Perhaps others can be moved and contextualized in museums, instead of defiantly and powerfully holding forth in town squares around the country, in places where black people live or have roots.
Their display in public spaces “gives power to a certain memory,” said Lise Ragbir, an Austin-based curator and arts and cultural administrator. “When you erect a monument that honors only one side of memory, you’re not allowing room for a conversation toward progress.