I love the South. Let’s start with that. I love the South for its natural beauty, for the voices of its people. For its barbecue, for its beaches. For its special sense of gentility and the hospitality that opens its doors without hesitation. And because it’s my home.
Because I love the South, it makes me sick when I see the news from South Carolina that a white supremacist is accused of massacring equal citizens of our country and our home in a sacred citadel of black history and strength simply because of the color of their bodies.
It makes me sick because it reminds me that change may never come in my lifetime. That I’m 27, and I’ll still have to see these travesties on the news when I’m sucking oxygen from a tank and crapping in a pot in a nursing home. That my kids may have to explain to their grandkids why, 200 years after slavery ended, some people still feel they have a right, or even a duty, to murder a black person they’ve never met. Or a Latino, gay, immigrant, Muslim or transgender person, or any minority group for that matter.
How do we change? How do we change? One of the few things proven consistently true in the course of my life is that if you want change, you must do something different, something concrete.
It sounds simple, but it’s not. First, you must want change so desperately that you’re willing to face the terror of leaving behind something that makes you comfortable — even if it’s bad for you. Second, you must do something real, something that scares you, and something that may make you seem strange, or stupid, or even threatening in the eyes of those around you.
As I followed the news from Charleston, one detail that really galled me was that they didn’t even have the decency to fly the Confederate flag that watches over their capitol at half-staff. What clearer symbol that the living ghost of the Confederacy still doesn’t value black lives as human lives?
Try to tell me that symbols like flags and monuments don’t matter. Try to tell me they’re a benign remnant of our history. Of course they aren’t. Even our great Southern storyteller William Faulkner warns us: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
What most obviously represents our inhumanity — past and present — in our own city? Richmond’s Confederate monuments are the glaring sentinels of our defiant, ugly history.
So let us tear them down. Let us knock the statues from their bases the way you topple a defeated king in chess, not out of disrespect or hatred, but as recognition of finality. Knock them down and leave them fallen in the grass of Monument Avenue as an honest reminder of our past and a hopeful herald of our future. Because the monuments themselves aren’t the actual people they purport to honor; they’re symbols of a cause that’s long lost and far too long clung to.
Worried about our pristine historic avenue? Worried about tourism? Consider this — topple the monuments and, guaranteed, the news goes international. Topple the monuments and imagine what a destination Richmond will become as the rare city brave enough to begin facing its historical demons, and finally, finally humble enough to meaningfully acknowledge the defeat of its metallically enshrined heroes.
Lest this gets dismissed as the bleeding liberal rant of a pseudo-Southerner who doesn’t understand our culture, let me mention a few things. My ancestors’ roots in Virginia go back as far as I’ve yet been able to follow the trail, and at least a handful of them fought in the Confederate army.
The individuals fighting on either side of the war weren’t strictly good or bad. They were flawed human beings caught up in something much, much bigger than themselves. Yet there’s no denying that the Confederate army as a whole fought to protect an evil institution, even if we accept the argument that some Southerners classified slavery merely as a single pillar in the “way of life” they fought for.
And those who think they have some special moral authority to defend these monuments as a noble part of our heritage because their daddies passed down their grandaddies’ pistols from the war can forget it. Plenty of people around here descend from Southerners and Confederates and enslaved black Americans and are ready — past ready — to demote this noble-Confederacy garbage from a modern fringe belief system to a complicated chapter in our shared history.
Unsurprisingly, because by all accounts he was an intelligent man, Gen. Robert E. Lee was one of the first to recognize what the future called for when the war ended.
“We have been defeated,” he said. “For us, as a Christian people, there is now but one course to pursue. We must accept the situation … and we must proceed to build up our country on a new basis.”
So let’s tear the monuments down and build up our city on a new basis. And in that gesture, we’ll help to build up our country on a new basis. These are lofty sentiments, to be certain, but without concrete action, that’s all they’ll ever remain. S
Brent Merritt is a Richmond native who lives in Washington, where he attends graduate school in political communication. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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