In the late 1800s, the white residents of New Orleans were still suffering the shattering personal, economic and social losses of the Civil War. To give meaning to their grief and to honor their beloved dead, they behaved as all humans would. They consoled themselves. They did so by erecting monuments to their defeated cause — which, as they had plainly said, was the preservation of a way of life founded on human slavery, a cause for which they were once willing to shatter by gunfire the infant democracy of the United States of America.
Communities change, slowly. Generation replaces generation. The people who needed such consolation are gone. And Confederate monuments no longer serve the purpose for which they were erected. Stripped by time of their former power to console, they no longer make sense. They now seem to exist, inexplicably, only to honor political and social ideals that are by any standard despicable — and from which the United States needed to purge itself to realize the promise of the American Revolution.
Five generations later, to remove at least the most prominent monuments is not to erase history. The Civil War surely was the most agonizing passage in the American experience — think of it as an explosive, violent escape from a doomed and traumatic childhood. In such light, deciding to take down from their pedestals those who made war to maintain human slavery is no different than refusing to display on the mantelpiece the picture of a savagely abusive father. It’s a choice.
Recall Baton Rouge Catholics’ decision in 2005 to rename the former Bishop Sullivan High School when evidence surfaced that the late bishop had molested a minor. That “erasure” was appropriate, even honorable. Indeed, not to have done so would have betrayed a community’s regard for its children.
There was no “denial” there. Nor is there “denial” here (unless it be a willful effort to deny the very evil those people championed). It’s certainly not Soviet-style “rewriting history” or “erasing memory.”
History and memory endure. Indeed, we cannot escape them.
Time passes. Cities change. Our streets and public monuments catalogue and sometimes conspicuously honor figures and values of the past. But surveying memory requires being honest about that past — and caring enough about ourselves today to name and confront evil, and bestow honor only where honor is truly due.