In moments of national fragility, history rears its head. The past becomes a vast storehouse of grievance. Revived memory is manipulated to produce violent nationalism. This is what is happening today in the United States, a nation suddenly at war with its past.
There is a reason for this war. America has been adept at evasion. A nation conceived as exceptional, a beacon to the world, could not but run from its original sin. How often I have wondered at all the museums and memorials to the Holocaust, the great crime against European Jewry that did not happen here, of which the United States was neither perpetrator nor victim. By comparison, the great American crime of slavery, the laceration and lynching of black bodies, was scarcely memorialized.
Today there is a movement in people’s minds. If the 20th century saw decolonization and the fall of empires, the 21st century is seeing the internal corollary of that process: a relentless challenge in Western societies to the white mind-set, white assumptions, white amnesia. How, after all, could those Confederate statues stand for so long and so prominently in so many American cities when they memorialized men who took up arms for slavery and in opposition to the Union?
It is hard and painful to refute your ancestry, disentangle individual honor from a lost and morally indefensible cause like that of the Confederacy, knit together a nation after a Civil War and 750,000 dead. Evasions accumulate. The South nursed its wounds, rewrote the story, adjusted the cause. Slavery died; Jim Crow began. The long struggle endured for black Americans to be heard, to be seen, to be equal before the law, to be not three-fifths of a human being but human beings in full.
Yet, the issue behind the obfuscations was clear enough, enunciated by Alexander Stephens, the vice president of the Confederacy, who put his “great truth” in unequivocal terms: “That the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery — subordination to the superior race — is his natural and normal condition.” Or, as Mississippi declared in seceding, “Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery — the greatest material interest of the world.”
This is the cause for which Gen. Robert E. Lee fought; and it was of course the proposed removal of his statue in Charlottesville that precipitated the violence last month between leftists and the white supremacists who wanted Lee kept in place and were willing, in one instance, to kill for him.
Despite the killing of a 32-year-old woman, President Trump saw “blame on both sides” and “very fine people” marching alongside the neo-Nazis. So, too, did many of his supporters. Charlottesville was a catalyst. From Baltimore to Birmingham, with a fearful haste, Confederate statues were removed or hidden, their ultimate fate unclear.
The abrupt removal of the statues seemed to set a limit at last to what America-the-beacon can conceal of its shadows. In his book “Between the World and Me,” Ta-Nehisi Coates writes, “In America, it is traditional to destroy the black body — it is heritage.” Enslavement, he continues, “was not merely the antiseptic borrowing of labor” but “rape so regular as to be industrial. There is no uplifting way to say this.”
So let it be said, loud and clear; and let the statuary that appears to honor this enterprise be cleared from American public spaces; or, if any is to remain, ensure the context is clear enough to preclude veneration.
Nothing, when it comes to memory, is simple. Memory is emotion. There is a danger in the rush to remove these statues. To excise history is to risk being punished by it. I learned that long ago when I covered the Bosnian war. The war was a lesson, written in blood, of the prison that bad or suppressed history can be. To go to Bosnia was to grow familiar with ghosts. Such ghosts are no less potent in the American South.
The statues now being upended tell a story, after all. Not the story they were erected to propagate — of Confederate valor — but of an attempt in defeat to mask the terrible “great truth” of the Confederacy and by so doing extend for many decades the subjugation and humiliation of American blacks. The statues are part of American history; consigning them to oblivion does not help.
They should be gathered in museums, or a museum, where their lesson can be taught and debated. Lonnie Bunch III, the director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture (which opened last year in Washington 23 years after the Holocaust Memorial Museum), told my colleagues Robin Pogrebin and Sopan Deb: “I am loath to erase history.” He is right.
Trump represents a backlash against the challenge to the white mind-set, white assumptions and white amnesia that I mentioned. He wants to build a dike against the 21st-century movement in people’s minds. The dike won’t hold, the current of history will wash him away. But how is an open question — and it’s worth recalling in a divided America just how combustible memory is.