Many years ago, I had the honor of hearing Leymah Gbowee speak in Accra as she gave an introduction to the film ‘Pray The Devil Back to Hell.’ The documentary covers chronicles social unrest in the West African Republic of Liberia, where civil war has torn the nation apart and left hundreds of thousands dead or displaced. The film reconstructs the way this tragedy galvanized a coalition of Christian and Muslim women to rise up and, through nonviolent tactics, put pressure on their government to pursue peace talks. In her opening statements, Leymah said something so profound that I have been unable to shake it from my memory till this day. She said (paraphrasing), “Women bear the stories of war upon our bodies.” She went on to describe a series of atrocities – gang rapes, mutilations and violent kidnappings – that would cause even the most stoic of persons extreme consternation. The somber scene now set, the audience went on to watch the film.
As statues, monuments and emblems created and erected to honor the Confederacy come tumbling down one after another across the US, I find my mind cast back to that statement. The choice to dismantle these symbols erected to honor men who fought to rip asunder America’s union, terrorize and hold in bondage a peculiar group of people and dishonor God by debauching His word and claiming it as “truth” has not come without opposition. There are many who argue that removing these tokens in recognition of the Confederacy is tantamount to ‘erasing history’…an idea that is only credible if we willfully deny the existence of history books, journals and museums. Their defense is that the Confederate states merely fought to preserve their way of life and that the Yanks were little more than infidels and invaders, contraveners of God’s natural law at best. I have to ask myself – have any of those who howl in opposition spent time interrogating what the Confederacy’s aims were? How can a person who espouses “American ideals” support the notion that any of these men and women deserve the privilege of esteem in American history? Have they seen what the bodies of Black folk say about the story of the Southern slave holding states?
It is well established that the Civil War was fought over the preservation of slavery. Slavery wasn’t just “part of” the way of life for the South, it was the foundation on which the economy and civil society were built and attitudes towards which mores were judged by. In his Cornerstone Address, Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens said as much:
This is the story of the “peculiar institution” as told from the vantage point of the conqueror: One who witnesses and processes the scourge of war and devastation in terms of pins in a wall or lights on a screen. But again: what stories do the bodies of those seeking to escape this ‘natural position’ tell us? If you’re curious, you can find out the details from enslaver him/herself.
These descriptions of what white supremacy – a system that BUILT America – did to Black bodies is horrifying. It’s haunting. And each of these acts was perfectly legal. A Black life was a tool – like a shovel or oxen. You couldn’t rape a Black woman because she wasn’t a person. You couldn’t murder a Black man because he was property. If a Black person lost their lives in service any compensation owed was paid out to his/her owner. This is the misery that the Confederacy (and now its modern defenders) fought to uphold and perpetuate. It’s a legacy that lives on through police brutality, land and property dispossession and failing schools…repulsive, but all very legal.
If there is any history that is endanger of being erased, it is the vestiges of slavery that were literally etched into the skin of the oppressed. Stonewall Jackson’s face has been blasted and chiseled into the side of a mountain in Georgia. Streets and schools bear the names of the generals who presided over the whipping and lynching of children. Their personhood – their humanity, despite their wicked deeds and depravity of mind – will endure. Whiteness will see to that.
Confederate emblems are toppling and good riddance too. It was recently asked, “If someone kidnapped, beat and raped your kids, where would you like us to erect their statue?” Fair question. If we are to honor the enemies of the idea of a UNITED States of America, perhaps it’s time to look into designing parks and naming schools for Kim Jong Un and Osama Bin Laden.
As America continues its attempts to veneer its shameful past and sanitize its history, we can take dark comfort in the fact that the real story will forever remain etched in the bones of the disenfranchised and departed.
In conclusion, screw your rebel monuments and the tractor-trailers you rolled them in on.