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Sarah, Seeking

Thoughts and Prayers and Poetry

What does remembering history look like?

Two stories:


First, I went to a high school named after a state governor. It was part of "Governors' Village" with a couple elementary schools and a middle school. During my time at this high school, I learned *zero* things about our namesake. I only knew he had been a state governor because of the overall branding of the schools. I was definitely never taught why he was chosen for the honor of having a school named after him. And I was never taught that besides being a governor of our state he was also a Confederate general.


The school district this past week, in response to a rising awareness of how we memorialize people from our country's history, specifically the Civil War, has decided to rename the high school.


Second, the college I attended had a dorm named after Jefferson Davis. It had a bust of Jefferson Davis in a prominent location on campus. While I was there, *15 years ago*, there were frequent conversations about the need to rename Davis Hall and remove the bust and other displayed memorabilia. Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederacy, was a student at Transylvania - not a graduate (he transferred to West Point). At some point it was determined that this small connection to the school was worthy of honoring with the naming of building. During my time at Transy, I was part of multiple conversations about the lack of diversity on campus including the ways the physical buildings on campus made it a hostile place for Black students, facility, and staff and the obvious racial disparities that existed between professors and administrators and lower paid staff such as food service and facility workers. To ask a Black student to live in a building named after an individual that loudly proclaimed they were less than human is absurd and cruel. Davis Hall was finally demolished in 2015 to make way for a new residence hall.


I share these stories for a reason. There are those who are outraged by the destruction of statues and monuments (and the retiring of certain brand mascots - but that's a separate post). Buildings are only different in that they are harder to tear down - but the purpose is the same - to honor and remember someone. The argument I am hearing is they are a part of our history and these statues and monuments help us remember that history.


Except I would argue they don't actually help us remember history. And often they are very bad at helping us remember history *accurately*. A statue tells us that someone is worthy of honor, of celebrating, of remembering. Often there is a plaque with a few words reminding us of some accomplishment or leadership role. One aspect of a person's life or role does not history make. It lacks context and depth. And the presence of these statues communicates something beyond "remember this history," it says "this is what we value."


No person is flawless, without mistakes or problematic beliefs, especially from the history of this country. But there is a pattern to the monuments that have been targeted for removal. Many have been part of long fought campaigns to remove them and possibly find more educational and context-filled places for them. Because normal channels have not been successful in removing racist statues, tearing down these signs of old worldviews have also become a way to signal a change in values, in priorities, in what we choose to lift up and remember. Removing them from our city squares lets us educate ourselves about the true impact of people like Christopher Columbus on Indigenous people and the sins of his worldview beyond what we are taught in many history books.


If we want the statues in our cities to really help us remember history, I suggest we advocate for more diversity in our monuments. Let us be intentional about the history we choose to lift up, to celebrate, to remember. And let us be more outraged by the unneeded loss of Black lives due to bias, unnecessary police violence, and an over-policing of Black neighborhoods than by the destruction of some marble or iron.


For more reading about the history of Confederate monuments and statues in particular, I suggest this NPR article from 2017 (when the violence in Charlottesville occurred) on why they were built.

An excerpt:

To build Confederate statues, says Dailey, in public spaces, near government buildings, and especially in front of court houses, was a "power play" meant to intimidate those looking to come to the "seat of justice or the seat of the law."



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