Opinion

Monuments remind us who is in charge, still – Jesse James DeConto

“Nobody cares about the Fourth of July like New Englanders care about it.” As usual, my Southern wife was right. Paul Revere is maybe second only to Big Papi in New England lore.

With activists clashing in Charlottesville and a statue toppling here in Durham, I can’t help thinking about how we celebrated history when I was growing up in the Merrimack River valley.

There were field trips to Boston’s Old North Church, where two churchmen lit up the steeple to relay Revere’s news that the British were coming by sea; or to Bunker Hill, the site of the first battle between Redcoats and Patriots (the treasonous insurgents against the government are called Patriots, by the way. Got it?). And my people love to display their American flags and those half-circle red-white-and-blue buntings on their front porches.

It wasn’t just the American Revolution, either. I spent my earliest years in Lowell, the birthplace of another revolution, the Industrial, and you’d see those little bronze placards memorializing workers who dredged canals or spun cotton, those lost manufacturing jobs that now cause so much hand-wringing.

And so when I hear some Southern whites complain of “erasing our history,” I empathize. Remembering the past is woven into my identity as a New Englander. But I think “history” is the wrong word.

That word conveys a sense of objectivity, as though these are “just the facts.” The reality is, deciding who and what to valorize in the public square is itself a political act. The Freedom Trail, Confederate monuments or the Fourth of July are not mere history; they’re politics. Someone’s statue gets erected either because various stakeholders sit down and find common ground or because those in power impose their will on the rest of us. We’re not simply preserving the past; we’re shaping the future and what kind of identity we want as communities, as a nation, as a people.

The labor movement fought for those worker memorials. Civil-rights activists cast the lunch-counter sit-ins in bronze. Do you think the descendants of factory owners who exploited child labor wanted that remembered in Lowell? Do you think the white heirs of Jim Crow segregation wanted their grandparents memorialized that way? No. We have public conversations and we decide what’s important to remember. We turn history into a landmark not simply because it happened; we symbolize it publicly to remind us who we are and who we want to be; maybe we want to be a people who care about equality; maybe we want to be people with a conscience. These are political messages, not mere history.

And so too was the Confederate Soldiers Monument outside the old Durham County courthouse. I won’t feign to divine every motive of the United Daughters of the Confederacy and others who wanted to put up that statue in 1924. But I can’t help but notice that at the entrance to a hall of justice, where the lady holding the scales is supposed to be blind, there was no memorial to the injustice of black women only gaining the right to vote four years earlier, some five decades after the war. In front of a court of justice, Durham memorialized “the boys in gray” who fought to keep their fellow humans enslaved. This memorial is not just history. At worst, it was brutal intimidation, a reminder that white people may have lost the war, but they were still in charge here. Even at its best, it insisted on the righteousness of the Southern cause, a refusal to confess its sins, to mourn the reality that Southern powerbrokers sent the boys in gray to die for their murderous greed.

The status quo is powerful. As a crime reporter, I used to go to the 1978 courthouse across the street almost every day, and I hardly noticed the Confederate statue. It carried little emotional weight for me, a white Northerner. But that’s my point: What may seem neutral, a historical marker for poor, rural whites who lost their lives, is not neutral. It signified who was important, whose view of history mattered.

Letting such a marker stand doesn’t necessarily look like an act of violence. Pulling it down makes for better footage in the YouTube era. Sheriff Mike Andrews can profess that slow, deliberate conversation is the way of civilized, thoughtful mediators. But when he justifies arresting and charging the activists as criminals because “we need to sit down and be able to talk,” this is politics, not policing. It’s the politics of respectability, of slow change, a politics that doesn’t rise to the urgent moment we’re facing.

Confederate statues have been unmasked as symbols of political oppression, and tearing them down is the political act of the people. Following due process, as Andrews suggests, is no more a blind “legal” approach than erecting the statue in the first place was “history.” This is politics, and politics that preserves the status quo indefinitely, under the guise of deliberation, is as violent as the show of tearing down a statue. How long must our black brothers and sisters suffer under a government that celebrates their captors and colluders? How long must we talk about whether they are equals in our democracy?

I don’t know about you, but I want to live in a Durham that memorializes the dismantling of white supremacy in bronze, rather than prosecuting it. Put that statue back up. Leave the dents. Put a bronze rope around its neck, and commission a bronze statue of Takiyah Thompson pulling it down. That’s the history I want my kids to remember. Our history is tragedy. Let’s commemorate it in all its wicked glory.

Jesse James DeConto is an author, journalist, musician. He lives in Durham.

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