My favorite line of the past week is "how can we erase our history by taking down these statues." It's a hilarious line, primarily, because it's said most often by people who have no understanding of the history of the statues, never mind the history they are meant to theoretically (at least) commemorate.
Each state in the US is invited to contribute 2 statues to the US Capitol in Washington. Mississippi chose as one of theirs Jefferson Davis, the President of the Confederate States of America, who led the secessionist states during the Civil War. Georgia is represented in part by the CSA Vice President. Ponder that, for a moment. Yet the problem, we're told, rests with Nancy Pelosi, who stated - again - this week that it's long past time for Congress and the states to act to reconsider just which statues belong in the center of our national government's greatest hall.
These are not accidents. This didn't "just happen." And anger and outrage over the presence of a vast swath of Confederate celebrating statuary didn't appear overnight. Mississippi added the confederate stars and bars to its state flag in the mid sixties, at the height of the Civil Rights movement. Yet to bring up the modest observation that it's probably time to remove them provokes outrage and cries of manhandling important history.
When Dylann Roof shot parishioners in Charleston's oldest black church - a deliberate act meant, in his words, to start a "race war" - the horrified response revived, in part, a decades old conversation across the South about the hate movements, the KKK, and the racist symbolism of the white south. Even in that aftermath, it was unclear for days if the will even existed to finally pull down the confederate flag on the state house grounds, a flag that, by statute, couldn't be lowered ever, for any reason.
And since then, in the aftermath of Charleston, the conversation about statues and symbols of an unrepentant south - a pointed display of confederate symbolism meant most to remind those who would defy it of just who holds what power and why - has continued on and led, most directly, to Charlottesville. The decisions to remove Robert E Lee from the town's main park, to rename the park "Emancipation Park" were painful ones that revived a hard discussion, long held grievances, and confronted difficult, rarely mentioned realities about race that are understood across the south and by black people pretty much all over the nation.
This is the reality and the history many unknowingly stepped into this past week, a week defined by the arrival of angry white supremacists in Charlottesville, determined to stop the statue's removal and to revive one side's insistence on making sure divisions by race remain intact. Race itself is an artificial, social construct. "Black' and "white" are terms we have made up ourselves, invested with meanings that often make no sense (the "one drop" rule, the "paper bag test") and that we perpetuate, on and on with no end in sight. To argue that removing statues erases an important piece of our history is, naturally, to erase history itself - it is to pretend we don't know how we got here, how this all started, what really drives this conversation.
There were those well meaning souls who, faced with yet more polling that an unaware public opposes something it largely doesn't understand, said "this isn't about the statues, this is about neo nazis and white supremacists" was also an attempt to both whitewash (literally) the whole conversation and to yet again tell blacks that long sought justice should be put off for the convenience of others and popular sentiment. It says something about the changes that Civil Rights and, yes, affirmative action have wrought that the attempts to silence were nipped and pushed back almost within hours of being brought up - a TV show with a host of color, and a panel of diverse representation, it turns out, brings forward voices with different ideas. And the conversation we're having now, it turns out, can be productive, thoughtful, and even difficult, and confrontational.
Knowing how we got here is half the battle - it turns out, in fact, to be an important half, but there's still more to do. It was heartening, this week, to see the progress made in cities across the north and south. Boston stood up to white supremacists. Baltimore took down its Confederate statues. Lexington, Kentucky made moves to do the same. Charlottesville refused to surrender its progress, its dignity, or its soul. And a nation refused, calmly and quietly, to simply accept the thoughtlessness of its accidental President.
The statues are important. The statues are the heart of this conversation, just as every sign and symbol of white power and oppression meant to further our racial divide is an important part of a conversation meant to figure out how, one day, we can be a better nation that moves beyond racial divisions. Ending those divisions isn't pretending we don't have them, or never had them, or don't have a history that enshrines enforcing them. It is hard, it is painful, it doesn't need to be violent, but we cannot surrender just because violence happens. Learn the history. Take them down. Erase nothing, change everything. For goodness sake, haven't we waited long enough?