Civil War statues in America are a hot conversation right now amid a national movement to remove them from public spaces. So when I saw a link to an article from the Scotsman that depicted a statue of William Wallace, and a friend commented — with mild mockery — saying how shocking it was that no one was revolting in Scotland over this loser’s statue….. it got me thinking about our Civil War statues.
The statue of Wallace is an excellent example of why context, particularly around a statue, matters. This small statue represents one man, and it’s historic because of the context about his life. If you view the graphic below, you’ll notice Wallace’s past is blatantly in the headline and introduction, making clear he’s both a traitor and a hero for fighting to keep the Scots free from English rule (and taxes, loss of language, land, religion, way of life, etc.). It’s one statue in front of the tower where he actually was and is now a tourist site to visit and be educated about his life and death.
The key difference in Scotland’s Wallace vs America’s Lee is that Wallace was fighting to keep free Scots free, while Lee was fighting to keep the unfree in bondage and to deny them any rights. So, to argue for Lee’s statue is to argue against freedom and for bondage; you are arguing for the Pharaoh, not for Moses. You are arguing against the very freedom that is THE American ideal we celebrate each July the 4th.
While confederate statues like Lee now exist throughout America, most are in places these people never lived, fought or visited, and some places didn’t even exist during the civil war. For white America, this honored “the lost cause”; for Black America it reminded them they were not free. So to view the statues through the lense of freedom, it’s easy to grasp what side the winners were on and why the winners find it puzzling that people are still yelling about celebrating the losers or asking with indignation why that is so insulting — as if freedom was never won and worth celebrating.
Had these statues been placed with full historical context where people focused on freedom, Americans today would understand the value of freedom in 1865 was just as hard fought as freedom in 1776 and not falsely claim Lee didn’t own slaves or forgot his call to put away all Confederate flags lest the open sores in our nation fester, or that he didn’t want statues of himself. Had we learned about his life and honored freedom, we might not be picking our nation’s festering wounds and simultaneously urging those who won freedom to celebrate the losers and ignore their victory. But freedom, like the truth, wants to be unfurled.
Ignoring that the majority of the Civil War statues were erected 40-100 years after the civil war as part of Jim Crow and a Civil Rights backlash, our national lack of the context about those freedoms gained and lives lost helped us justify our failure to educate ourselves about the value we place on freedom itself in 1865 in the same way we did in 1776 or 1812. In doing so, we cannot acknowledge the damage to citizens who fought for freedom in 1865 as equal to those who fought in other wars, and thus white America ignores the economic, legal, physical and moral cost of that freedom in favor of the visual social impact. We don’t celebrate the long fought freedom of Americans once called slaves, or their struggle to retain it. I mean, have you ever celebrated Juneteeth in Texas? So until our statues provide context like the Wallace statue, they remain a painfully one-sided representation of southern American whites and blacks that justified human ownership and refute the value of freedom.
America is about big ideas, and our biggest idea is freedom. I mean who didn’t watch the movie Amistad and chant “Give us us FREE!” as John Quincy Adams argued in court for their freedom? These stories of those who clawed their way to freedom help us more fully understand why freedom means so much, and we are missing a whole swathe of those stories. For example, we celebrate the radicals who broke with tradition, threw out the tea and won freedom in 1776, but not the radicals who did the same in 1865? So if we know owning humans is evil, why can’t we admit the leaders who were part of that are culpable? Why do we all know Harriet Tubman, but not Ida B. Wells-Barnett? Why don’t we celebrate slavery’s death and honor those who lead us out of slavery like we honor those who lead us out of England on the Mayflower? We have segregated the truth just like we did the people, we have tried to bury the painful parts of our white past without recognizing that out of our pain comes our glory. That out of our worst came our best, came freedom once again boldly unfurling itself. And yet when white america could not bear the shame of slavery, a moral evil, it could not be both slave owner and honorable, or hold both freedom and truth simultaneously… so the lost cause was born.
How do we honor our whole history without ignoring the brutality? Perhaps as the Scots have done with Wallace, focusing on freedom and what it means to fight for and against it. Had we not white-washed Lee’s brutal ideas, we might not have ignored his call to put away the Confederate flag or to close the open wounds of our nation or made excuses for fighting against freedom.
We cannot argue for preserving history and ignore the history we failed to preserve, that of African Americans. Our collective inability to admit the magnitude of slavery on all of our peoples has left us with righteous black anger and white defensiveness. We preserved the history of the losers and neglected freedoms winners. In simple terms, whites owned blacks for profit, and were merciless to them for decades, and modern day whites do not want to be culpable for that shameful behavior and cannot acknowledge verbally what we openly honor with national statues — do we honor freedom for all or for some? Similarly, acknowledging black freedom without celebrating the end of slavery ignores the cost of freedom. We cannot celebrate freedom as one nation with a selective memory that ignores what is unappealing. If the point is to preserve history, we first have to know history… and the winners of the Abolitionist movement that fought for the American ideal of freedom is a truth worth celebrating.
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