Wednesday, June 24, 2015

On Flags, Forrest and Hysteria in the Wake of Charleston

In the wake of Charleston, my Facebook feed is stuffed full of hysteria about Confederate flags and Nathan Bedford Forrest, including reports that Nashville mayoral candidate Megan Barry wants a Forrest statue hidden from public view and Rep. Jim Cooper wants a bust of the Confederate general removed from the State Capitol in Nashville.

Sorry, folks, but I'm going to have to say no. People, you cannot erase history. If you remove the evidence of history, it does not make history go away. You cannot pretend that things didn't happen or that people did not exist or that deeds were not done. Furthermore, you cannot forbid human beings from commemorating their history (flags, symbols, etc.) or from memorializing their dead. 

I have been a Civil War freak since I was about 7 years old, when my parents gave me The Golden Book of the Civil War. Growing up in Maryland, a Border State, I always had a fascination for and curiosity about the two sides of the conflict, as well as the key issues that went back all the way to our nation's founding. Now, like it or not, hundreds of thousands of Southerners died fighting for their cause—just under a half million, per best estimates—however misguided morally that cause was in regards to slavery. That, people, is the great tragedy of the South, and that also is a part of history. What next? Demolition of Stone Mountain? The forcible renaming of Washington and Lee University? Redaction of A Streetcar Named Desire to remove all mention of the plantation Belle Reve? (In fact, the vast majority of the combatants in the Confederate army weren't even slaveholders, but that's a sad-eyed discussion for another time.)

Are you aware that Confederate monuments memorialize the dead at Gettysburg, and that the state of Tennessee's Gettysburg monument was dedicated only as recently as 1982? Shall we remove those monuments and pretend that the 23,000 Confederate casualties of the battle never happened? Perhaps we should just eliminate mention of the Civil War altogether from our history books and our public consciousness. We could simply choose to forget that nearly half a million Southerners died in that conflict, but I daresay that the descendants of those who perished have every human right to commemorate their forebears as they see fit. I also would suggest that Abraham Lincoln would've allowed the South a wide berth in recovery from the war's brutality and would've seen the need for proper grievance. I doubt Lincoln would've censored icons and ceremony. 

Yes Yes Yes: I understand why this is touchy territory. What happened in Charleston was ugly, and I have been utterly speechless about it, because, like so many others, I was thunderstruck. Truly, there are no words. 

But getting at the heart of racism in America will not be accomplished by removing the statues of dead generals or censoring the display of old battle flags. That journey is a more personal one, incumbent on each and every one of us to better our relations with all our fellow humans in every circumstance, every single day of our lives. 

Finally, history is there for the learning. Let us learn from it, and not be afraid to confront it. 

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