“History is written by the victors,” the saying goes. Yet, decades after a civil war that killed far more Americans than any other, history was rewritten by the vanquished to reassert their power over a marginalized people. At this juncture, we must ask ourselves: What are the things about our past that we want to celebrate and honor? And what things in our past are so horrible that we never want to forget, lest we repeat them? History, fundamentally, is only what we decide to remember, what we choose from all the details and points of view.
Statues and place names of Confederate leaders commemorate a part of our history, but they do not serve as suitable reminders of the ugliness of our past or the horrors of slavery. Here’s what historical reminders of the worst of humanity look like: At Dachau, visitors can see the crematorium, where bodies burned, reconstructed barracks where emaciated louse-covered prisoners slept in cramped hard bunks after laboring long days on empty stomachs. Visitors can see the guard tower that constantly threatened the prisoners with death. The horror is palpable. The Holocaust Museum in Washington recreates the cattle cars and the ghettos and has the ghastly display of all the shoes left behind by the victims. At the Wittenbergplatz subway station in Berlin, a memorial lists Germany’s concentration camps, headlined by the words: “Places of horror. We must never forget.”
I’ve been to Cape Coast Castle in Ghana, which from the outside looks like a magnificent white fortress, built by Europeans in the 17th century. But the tour guide shows visitors the male and female “slave dungeons,” where human beings were held deep underground in darkness, awaiting passage across to the New World, and many died down there. I can imagine them cramped in this fetid space as I wondered what they ate, and how they relieved themselves.
I’ve been to the old slave market in Zanzibar, and experienced the tiny underground holding chambers just a few feet high, with sewers running through, where captive human beings were confined while awaiting sale to other people who would own them. I’ve been to the International Slavery Museum in Liverpool, UK, where you can see the shackles people wore, the instruments they were tortured with, and experience an interactive exhibit to imagine transit on a slave ship. You can imagine the abominable suffering and wonder if you would have survived such torment yourself. So many people did not make it.
These are the historical memories of a wrenching history we never want to erase or forget. Contrast these relics with a bronze statue of Robert E Lee on a pedestal, regal on horseback, in a leafy park bearing his name. Or statues of other generals, soldiers or dignitaries who all played a part in defending slavery, for the most part depicted in a proud and favorable light. These do not invoke images of the suffering of the victims to help us remember a horror we must never forget. On the contrary: These statues, and street names, and place names showcase those who perpetrated these horrors against our fellow human beings. The leaders are not shown inflicting suffering on their own slaves, whipping them, raping them, or torturing them. They are not shown with their most famous quotations about the superiority of the white man. Instead they are shown as heroes. We do not name streets after villains, after all.
Most Confederate statues were not even historical relics of the Confederacy. They were erected during Jim Crow, long after the Civil War, intended as instruments of white supremacy. Imagine how you would feel to pass by a statue or street named for someone who would sneer or spit at you if only they could. Imagine if German cities erected statues of Hitler and Goebbels 40 years after World War II—what message would that send to any remaining Jews? Personally, I could never relax in a lush beautiful park underneath a statue of a man who fought to crush a segment of humankind. And it literally pains me to drive down “Jefferson Davis Highway” outside Washington’s National Airport.
Monuments that help us remember the horrors of an earlier era evoke the victims or the horrors they endured, or show the heroes who stood up for them. If that’s what we want to memorialize about the Civil War and slavery, we would have to replace a lot of statues and street names. We can visit old plantation houses if we want to remember the myth of the genteel white south of verandas and hoop skirts. Otherwise, leave the mint juleps to our favorite bars and restaurants, and our parks to real heroes who make everyone feel welcome.