Remembering Well: Confederate Monuments and the Ethics of Memory
What does it mean to remember well? To remember ethically?
These questions are as engaging as they are rare. How often do we think about the ethics of memory? Our default assumption is to portray memory as an objective recollection of details, but that’s a misrepresentation. Memory is a value-laden, subjective, interpretive engagement with the past. History and memory are never objective affairs, but are imbued with significance that has a direct influence on our interpretation of, and interaction with, current events.1 This truth is, of course, nothing new to Christians, as our faith is established upon a theological interpretation of historical events.
The nuanced nature of memory evokes an obligation on our part, an obligation to remember well. We must steward our memories in a way that embodies love and selflessness. As Miroslav Volf explains in The End of Memory, “It is important not merely to remember, but also to remember rightly.”2 Remembering rightly not only includes what we remember, but how we remember it. Memory is an ethical endeavor, and remembering history is an ethical dialogue.
The collective process of remembering rightly is precisely at play in the latest controversy surrounding the removal of Confederate monuments in New Orleans and Charlottesville.3 As Americans, we are faced with the challenge of discerning what to remember, and how to remember it. The level of wrongdoing that surrounded the Confederacy and the Civil War is unfathomable, and we have to learn how to remember these wrongdoings well. Rightly remembering wrongdoing not only does justice to the victims of wrongdoing, but affects whether or not we perpetuate the same evils today. As Volf notes, “For not only do we act on memories of wrongs suffered; these memories act on us, too.”4
The removal of Confederate monuments has taken such a prominent stage in America precisely because it’s an attempt to remember well. It is a step toward a responsible approach to American history which acknowledges the evil of slavery and seeks to challenge the racism that fueled it. Simply put, by removing these monuments, New Orleans is drawing closer toward remembering the past in a way that is just and refuses to perpetuate evil through misplaced nostalgia.
Growing up in Texas, I received a fairly pro-Confederate education. I was taught that the Civil War was about states’ rights, not slavery, and that the emphasis on slavery in history books was the result of decades of Northern propaganda. I was under the impression that flying the Confederate flag meant nothing more than respect for “Southern heritage” and that monuments to Confederate generals had nothing to do with slavery, and everything to do with remembering honorable men who fought for a noble cause: the preservation of states’ rights and Southern culture.
However, a closer look at the Civil War, and the historical events that surround it, show that this way of remembering Confederate history fails to align with reality. The declaration of Southern states made it clear that the Confederacy was formed, and the Civil War was begun, so that Southern states could perpetuate the practice of chattel slavery. Read the states’ declarations.5 Every single Southern state’s declaration of secession makes it clear that slavery was the primary issue around which all other political issues revolved.
After reading these declarations, I understood why I never read them in school: they contradict the pro-Confederate narrative that was so ingrained in my education. My education in Texas never showed me the declaration that Texas gave, and this excerpt from the Texas declaration of secession demonstrates why:
“We hold as undeniable truths that the governments of the various States, and of the confederacy itself, were established exclusively by the white race, for themselves and their posterity; that the African race had no agency in their establishment; that they were rightfully held and regarded as an inferior and dependent race, and in that condition only could their existence in this country be rendered beneficial or tolerable.
That in this free government *all white men are and of right ought to be entitled to equal civil and political rights* [emphasis in the original]; that the servitude of the African race, as existing in these States, is mutually beneficial to both bond and free, and is abundantly authorized and justified by the experience of mankind, and the revealed will of the Almighty Creator, as recognized by all Christian nations; while the destruction of the existing relations between the two races, as advocated by our sectional enemies, would bring inevitable calamities upon both and desolation upon the fifteen slave-holding states.
By the secession of six of the slave-holding States, and the certainty that others will speedily do likewise, Texas has no alternative but to remain in an isolated connection with the North, or unite her destinies with the South.”6
Confederate apologists claim that the Civil War was about economics and states’ rights, not slavery.7 However, as has already been observed, it’s easy to claim that the war was about economics when your ancestors were not currency.8 Likewise, the term “states’ rights” never appears in the Texas declaration of secession. However, this does not mean that states’ rights played no role. Quite the contrary. The declarations of Southern states reference states’ rights and economics, but these references always center around the right to own slaves and to receive the economic benefits that come from the subjugation of human beings. Claiming that the Civil War was about states’ rights and/or economics, as opposed to slavery, commits a category mistake. Slavery, states’ rights and economics were inextricably intertwined.
The recent controversies in New Orleans and Charlottesville raise many issues surrounding the ethics of memory, such as the role that monuments play in historical imagination. How do symbols, such as the Stars and Bars (which was never the official flag of the Confederacy), operate? What influence do they have? How can we accurately remember history without honoring the evils that it contains? These are complex questions. However, in this case, it’s clear that Confederate monuments and the Stars and Bars are inextricably linked to the system of chattel slavery that drove Southern economics. Retaining these symbols of slavery does an injustice to victims by honoring their oppressors.
Monuments honoring slavery must come down.
Seeking Truth and Justice
Unfortunately, there are many who are far more outraged by the removal of these monuments than by the evil of slavery. Crowds gathered to defend the monuments, one of which was led by the infamous neo-Nazi Richard Spencer.9 Death threats have been made against those the companies willing to physically remove these statues.10 But why such hostility? Defenders of the monuments claim that the removal of these statues erases history.11 At first, this sentiment just seems baffling. Taking down four monuments in New Orleans does not magically blot out pages of history books. No, the removal of Confederate monuments does not erase history, but is an action which seeks to counteract the false narrative that minimizes the role of slavery. It is not an attempt to obscure the truth of American history, but to disempower the lies of Confederate hagiography.
The removal of these monuments is a rebuke of the false narratives that obscure historical truths in order to maintain white supremacy. It is a small step in the direction of justice: an attempt to name evil and to stop whitewashing the horror of slavery. The removal of the New Orleans monuments will not solve racism, nor will it correct the countless evils committed in the name of the Confederacy. However, it’s an attempt to grapple with history by acknowledging evil as evil and refusing to call it good (Isaiah 5:20).
Toward Remembering Rightly
What would it look like for New Orleans and Charlottesville to remember history well? Remembering atrocity is an ongoing dialogical project that will require the best of human efforts for humility, repentance, and healing. Remembering history well will not minimize the evil of slavery, relegating it to an inconsequential footnote in history. It will honor the voices of those descended from individuals who were owned, abused and murdered. It will hold the pain of generations ravished and call on people of goodwill to oppose the violations and abuses actively committed in the world today.
Monuments that move us toward justice must be erected. Lest we forget.
(2) Volf, Miroslav. The End of Memory (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006), 10.
(4) Volf, 69.
Original photo source can be found here: https://www.flickr.com/photos/louisvillemetro/4429206133/in/photolist-7KoQEZ-eT8368-fUN7hP-7KsVnj-7KsJ5b-bmPGrX-orxZoN-jYuS4-S31uEg-7hgCj5-CvkdY5-eThQzy-7TxRnL-7DNerN-7KsLys-hK4h6P-dcCNLG-9cCDrE-nXTdFN-do2tj6-do2zBL-7hgBF7-TNrLV2-eTjoDU-7Ac1X6-7hcFcF-7TtRq6-do2Ae5-4hwrW8-9bgTKw-no4co-7d1bWb-5gVC4a-fBG13R-7KoYKT-8WJKhn-aUMc1n-oK2sd3-t2bAF-6xdQK8-7scCPd-7k5roQ-8cBi92-dh5ZJX-q1QnhW-vVRfZ-5CWsdZ-zx9j7-pPqBUf-22z8m3