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On Contested Histories: Rather Than Celebrate, We Should Remember

Confederate Salute | Chris Turner/Flickr/Creative Commons

Governments, institutions and activists have begun removing Confederate statues from places of significance around the United States amidst the turmoil of a white nationalist rally that turned violent in Charlottesville, VA. Whether we see these signifiers as landmarks, artworks, or historical marker, there may be a better way to address the moral and political frustration that appears to be guiding such actions. 

Humanity seems to have a penchant for producing icons. Icons first begin to appear in ancient civilizations.They continue to develop in size and scope with the rise of the Western European nation-state. Through these developments, art and icons commemorate the accomplishments of civilizations, both good and evil.   

The human construction of icons, however, also seems to produce periodic iconoclasts. Iconoclasts seek to erase memory, to rewrite history, through the physical removal or scarring of icons. As icons celebrate a moment of history, to preserve it for future generations, iconoclasts seek to deny history for the purity of a potential future. If victors write the history, iconoclasts seek the last word for the sake of a purity of the future. Think of Ancient Greek and Roman sculpture and how often they are missing important body parts like their nose or genitals. These effacing acts by later cultures intended to disempower, humiliate, and destroy the histories of those represented.

We live in a day of iconoclasts. The United States occupying army intentionally encouraged the destruction of Iraqi antiquities, statuary and documentary icons to construct a pure market economy. ISIS has regularly effaced world civilization sites to erase memories that might suggest a civilization to counter their version of radical Islam; the Taliban in Afghanistan destroyed a 1700 165 foot icon of Buddha in 2001. The story is not new, and the formula is simple, repress the history of the offensive to generate a new, purer world.    

What if, however, as the majority of the society we, all inhabitants of what is currently called the United States, rejected the dialectic, the tolerance of the racist ownership of the Confederacy icons versus the violence inherent in iconoclasm that then justifies the reactionary affirmations of the racist right? Rather than affirmation or denial, celebration or erasure, what if the statues remained, but were cloaked in the black cloths of mourning? Draped carefully and respectfully over the statuary. No defacing; no iconoclasm. But no celebration allowed. Create a void where the sculpture, monument or marker once stood.  

This act would serve as mourning for the victims of American slavery, men and women and children whose life encountered horrors for economic gain; mourning that persons might devote honor to such an evil cause; mourning for the victims of the Civil War and its aftermath, violence that extends until today. Artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude hoped to draw attention to the overlooked and re-engage objects and buildings through their colorfully wrapped structures; in contrast, our hypothetical black cloths inspired by Maya Lin shroud and obscure monuments as if it were a burial. A minimalist black mourning that forces engagement and communication while denying the exploitation of the tragedy for contemporary political gains espoused by our leaders.     

The Gates, Central Park, New York City, 1979-2005. Christo and Jeanne-Claude 2
The Gates, Central Park, New York City, 1979-2005. Christo and Jeanne-Claude 2

The Confederacy history is the history of United States, both North and South. Let us not forget nor erase; we must remember, despite our claims of moral superiority — one wonders how the future will judge the icons of our civilization that we build today. Removing the Confederacy icons do not change history. Northern European racism belongs historically to the progressive left in the United States as well as the reactive right. No political or economic structure stands outside the moral plague that continues to haunt the nation. Mourn. No triumphalism allowed.

Cloak the statues in black. Let it be a sign of humility, of sadness for the racist past and present, so that Americans of Northern European descent might recognize that moral and political failure resides within us as well.

Top image: Chris Turner/Flickr/Creative Commons License

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