In 1948, in the preface to an anthology of African and West Indian poets, the philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre asked these questions:
“What then did you expect when you unbound the gag that muted those black mouths? That they would chant your praises? Did you think that when those heads that our fathers had forcibly bowed down to the ground were raised again, you would find adoration in their eyes?”
Now, 67 years later, those questions are still relevant. Today, some are like that other famous Frenchman, Capt. Louis Renault, shocked — shocked! — to find that black people just don’t appreciate the military genius of Gen. Robert E. Lee, at least not enough to leave him perched high above the New Orleans Central Business District.
We are still feeling the aftershocks of the shooting of nine black churchgoers in Charleston, South Carolina, allegedly by a man who had white power and neo-Confederate sympathies. In the wake of that, South Carolina and Alabama officials decided to take Confederate flags down from some public spaces.
In Tennessee, the Republican governor supports removing a bust of Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest from the State Capitol, while the African-American majority City Council in Memphis wants to take down a statue of him there.
Here, Mayor Mitch Landrieu is urging the removal of statues of Lee, Confederate President Jefferson Davis and Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard. He also wants to deal a final blow to an already controversial monument that celebrates the violent attack on Reconstruction government in New Orleans.
It will take a lot to drive old Dixie down, however. Several Louisiana Republicans have talked about ways to thwart Landrieu’s plans. Gov. Bobby Jindal even invoked a nonexistent law, the “Heritage Act,” that he thought could be an obstacle to the monuments’ removal.
It’s strange that members of the party of Lincoln, the first Republican to gain the White House, are showing such concern over monuments to his enemies.
Opponents of the monuments’ removal say it’s an attempt to cleanse history. But if that were true, wouldn’t those championing this idea also want to destroy every copy of “Roots,” “Django Unchained,” “12 Years a Slave” and “Glory”? Wouldn’t they argue for demolishing Fort Jackson and Fort St. Philip?
This isn’t about erasing the memory of slavery or the Civil War. It’s about ending the positions of honor that leaders of the rebellious South were placed in long after the war, a period that coincided with backtracking on the rights of black citizens once Reconstruction was over.
If you want to see cleansed history, look at the monuments themselves. Do any mention slavery? Do they say that the Confederacy was born because the sore losers of the 1860 election decided to leave, in many cases before the winner even took office? Do they mention the hundreds of thousands who died in the resulting war?
When Lee’s statue was raised, an editorial in The Daily Picayune got to the root of the matter: This wasn’t some anodyne historical marker; it was a message.
“We cannot ignore the fact that the secession has been stigmatized as treason and that the purest and bravest men in the South have been denounced as guilty of shameful crime,” the editorial said. “By every appliance of literature and art, we must show to all coming ages that with us, at least, there dwells no sense of guilt.”
No artful dodging, with hand-wringing over history being “cleansed,” can get around what these monuments meant when they were erected. And we shouldn’t be surprised to find that some don’t greet that meaning with praise and adoration today.
Dennis Persica’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.