History, Heritage, and the Holocaust

Currently there is a debate raging in the country about what to do with old monuments erected to celebrate the feats of the “heroes” of the Confederacy during the Civil War.

I believe there is a civil solution.

First, I find racism abhorrent, and I think the prominent display of these symbols of a regime that tore our country apart in the name of maintaining the institution of slavery is also abhorrent. That said, as a fan of history (as a discipline), I don’t believe we should try to erase the signs of that ugly chapter. Also, as a lover of art, I don’t believe in smashing up art because it isn’t to our exact taste. There is a simple solution however, and I am certainly not the first to suggest it. It is much in line with how Jewish people have dealt with the Holocaust.

Most people of the Jewish faith don’t want the Holocaust denied, forgotten, or celebrated. None of the above! They want it remembered as a visible sign of what blind prejudice can lead to. Rightly so. And I believe we should do the same with the confederate flag and all the statues and other things that go with them. Just as Jewish people have done by establishing holocaust museums, we should create regional “slavery museums.” All those statues of confederate generals could be put there, along with honest descriptions of what they did. And, of course, slavery as it was experienced by the slaves themselves would be shown as well.  

I think this would suit the needs of all involved. The real fans of slavery and the Confederacy could still come and secretly view their “heritage.” For people of color, they would no longer have these hideous symbols rubbed in their face every time they visited a public park. For the rest of us, we could go there and learn about the whole sad affair without being allowed to forget it.

Now I imagine that the real racists will hate this idea. They love talking about their heritage (and my plan would preserve it), but I’m guessing my plan would not preserve it in quite the way they intended.  The real purpose of these statues (most erected long after the Civil War) was to celebrate the restored ascendancy of the white majority over people of color.

Now maybe it’s just me, but it seems odd the way the word “heritage” seems to occur in these debates about our history. If you think about the word, it becomes pretty obvious. History is everything that really happened. Heritage suggests those things we inherited—our inheritance.  It suggests heredity—our blood, genes, etc., and also property privilege, land, and money. That is why one of the recurrent slogans of white supremacists, from the time of Nazi Germany to now is “blood and soil.” The blood (your inheritance) entitles you to the (soil) land and all that comes with it. I doubt that most people of color emerged from slavery after the Civil War with much more than their genes.

Let’s talk about genes. As far as I have been able to discover, modern genetics suggests that all humans have about 99+% of their genes in common. The divergence is generally minor and determines surface differences like skin color and other things. When it comes to essentials, there is no gene for intelligence, kindness, compassion, empathy, goodness, badness or any other big thing. No race has been shown to have a monopoly on any of these qualities. In short, as a biological idea, race is meaningless. It takes on meaning only as a social construct.

Now in saying that, I am not trying to diminish or deny the power of racism, which is obviously very strong. Quite to the contrary, I am simply saying it is a power we can eradicate if we try. As the famous “blue eyes” vs. “brown eyes” experiment showed, people can divide themselves into groups over the silliest things. And if one group is privileged over another, then really ugly things tend to develop. This is why I said, in my last post, the racism won’t go away by itself by just ignoring it: it will require a serious, long-term, focused effort to tear it down. Systemic racism was an intentional creation and only intentional effort can deconstruct it.

So, when Trump cries out that ‘Democrats and blacks are trying to destroy our heritage’ he doesn’t mean destroying our real history. He means that they are trying to deconstruct this notion of white heritage. The other parts of that heritage (the part that whites got and blacks didn’t) is the money, land, privilege, and power.

I can easily see a day when the same people who cry out to save the statues because they are part of our heritage cry out that government money shouldn’t be used to fund slavery museums. That would be because, in those museums, the statues would no longer serve the purpose of symbolizing “heritage” and simply become part of a sordid history.

Symbols are powerful things. That is why, when the Soviet system collapses in the late 1980s, Americans celebrated the fact that statues of Soviet heroes were pulled down. It is also why, when US troops entered Baghdad in 2003, one of the first things they did was pull down the statue of Saddam Hussein. They also stood by and watched as Iraq’s rich cultural museums were looted. In neither case did I ever hear much talk about preserving art or heritage.

Slavery in the US was certainly as ugly as Soviet rule or the regime of Saddam Hussein. It also lasted much longer. As a symbol of that ugly and unfair heritage, and a visible sign of the effort to actually reassert white supremacy, the Confederate monuments need to come down. They should be remembered for what they are—monuments to a set of traitors who launched a brutal civil war, and a wink and a nod to an abhorrent institution that continues to haunt our nation.

Recently, a brilliant young black academic named Caroline Randall Williams wrote a blistering op-ed in the New York Times. She wrote, “I have rape-colored skin. My light-brown-blackness is a living testament to the rules, the practices, the causes of the Old South…You want a Confederate monument? My body is a confederate monument. The black people I come from were owned and raped by the white people I come from. Who dares tell me to celebrate them?”

Later on, she points out that the white masters never took responsibility for the resulting children—they just added them to their inventory of slaves…This is a truly heart wrenching history to think about. That is her inheritance. It is also something we all need to think about if we are going to really change the problem of racism in our country.

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