What strikes you about this scene?
On the first morning of Black History Month, 2020, an infant’s stroller faces a towering obelisk erected a century ago by white supremacists. Over a hundred years ago in 1908, confederate army veterans had constructed this object to venerate the Confederate States of America and mark the ascendence of white supremacist state governments throughout the South.
Off to the side of the image, the child’s parents discuss a historic marker that explains the racist history of the statue. The statue dwarfs the marker. I heard the child’s mother explaining (perhaps to friends or parents) the point of the smaller counter marker off to the side. The child’s parents are white as are the group of their friends gathered around the marker.
I took the photo during a morning run two weeks ago. I’ve been struggling to come to terms with what this image says for two weeks.
Are you as shook by this image as I am?
Why does Georgia, the South, the US still feel the need to pollute its public spaces in this way?
Some context, in case you need it
Over a hundred years ago, the hard won freedoms of Black people across the U.S. lay in shambles. A Civil War had been fought, over half a million soldiers had died, the Confederate States economy based upon human trafficking and forced labor (i.e. slavery) had ended. In a brief period of no more than 20 years after the Civil War, African Americans had tasted self determination and been allowed a partial sample of democracy. Yet starting in the mid-1870’s, their former unapologetic enslavers had again regained control of government, and consolidated a hold on national political power in the U.S. that would be unchecked for another century. These reactionaries led campaigns of terror on African American communities with the approval of the U.S. government, denying Black folk access to basic human rights. This was the world into which by great-grandparents, grandparents, and parents had been born into. I sometimes think of my grandfather’s grandfather, a Black Civil War veteran who had witnessed this arc of terror: from enslavement, a struggle against tyranny, to freedom; only to end his life little more than a slave.
In an act of brazen self-affirmation, one of these terrorist organizations, a group of Confederate Veterans formed by Clement A Evans erected a monument to the lost cause (perhaps then not so lost) of a racial state. My mother used to speak of how the Klan would hold rallies near this artifact, on their way to rallies at Georgia’s Stone Mountain (site of another racist edifice).
Over the last ten years, there have been renewed efforts to remove the monuments to the white supremacy state, reinvigorated by the need to respond to the tragedies of the Charleston Church Massacre the Charlottesville Rally. Memorials like the National Memorial for Peace and Justice provide examples of what a reconciliation process would look like. But these efforts in the state of Georgia have hit a roadblock — state law prohibits the removal of Lost Cause monuments. The NAACP, the Atlanta History Center, and other organizations of conscience have responded with efforts to contextualize these structures.
The marker that is next to the obelisk is one of the first attempts by Black people in Georgia to contextualize the Civil War monuments so pervasive in the South.
What’s wrong with keeping confederate monuments — they’re history?
I struggle to understand why anyone would want to preserve a monument to white supremacy in a public space with significant Black population.
What do you think?
I’ve heard it said (even by Black folk) that these markers are “history”, and that removing them amounts to “erasing history”.
If you think about it, this monument and others like it are not markers that identify significant events in the Civil War, or regional history: there are markers around Atlanta that described the Civil War battles, markers where Black churches were burned, markers where student lead sit-ins de-segregated restaurants. Rather this one and others like it, venerate The Lost Cause — no not the prospect of the Falcons winning a Superbowl — but the notion that there was a redeeming value in the Confederate States of America, a government created for the express purpose of maintaining a racist economic system built upon the mass enslavement, exploitation, and dehumanization of African Americans. The Lost Cause formed the ideological basis for the Klu Klux Klan and other terrorist organizations as well as of the governments that ruled the South. If you think about it, this “monument” and others like amount to a huge dis-information campaign. It is not history, it is anti-history.
This marker and it’s protection feels like a cause for concern on several levels: it was created by early 20th century racists to venerate the racist government of the 19th century; and it continues to be protected by a 21st century state government, thus reifying the support of a racial power hierarchy. It is a monument to the persistence of the racial state.
But what does it mean today?
But Georgia is different now that it was 100 years ago.
The U.S. representative for this area is Black, the city council of Decatur is diverse. My aunt, who moved to Decatur in the 1970’s remarks on how amazing it is that the space is now truly multiracial, almost overwhelmed with joy that the confederate vestiges are now being challenged. Most of the police officers I encounter any given day near the monument are Black. How would the confederate generals react knowing that episodes of the HBO series The Watchmen — whose lead is a Black woman and whose plot references a white supremacist terror attack in Oklahoma — is filmed feet from the site of the statue? As I drop by son off to the school near the state capital complex, I see staff and legislators that are a diverse representation of a state in which Black and Brown people comprise 40% of the population. Atlanta ranks as the third in the U.S. in terms of population that self-identify as LGBTQ. Georgia is sixth in terms of undocumented people. It is a diverse state, and further a state in which people of color have a say in government — Stacy Abrams, a Black woman, lost the most recent governors race by 1%
of the vote.
In March, a memorial inspired by the National Memorial for Peace and Justice will be opened in Decatur. It will be a remembrance to Dekalb County’s Black victims of racial violence. Decatur will be only the second government entity in Georgia to do so.
So, things are changing. Is it enough simply to let “things take their course”?
Imagining a space for truth and healing
The dialog that took place between the child’s parent and friends is critical to building a livable future. I wish that I had stopped and asked her:
As a white person looking at this, how do you feel? Do you feel outrage, shame, indifference? What should be done?
It is dialog that makes “memorials” like this pertinent, relevant. We need ways to address the pain inherited from the past; naming the problems that we face today; and a starting point for calling the future we want into being.
What other ways are there to move forward?
In public spaces like this, once dominated by racism and centering oppression, a few ideas have come to mind.
- What if the guides giving tours of the city were taught how to reframe and refocus away from the white settler oriented perspective currently given?
- What if the city provided a Land Acknowledgement template for conferences and conventions that paid homage to the Indigenous guardians and first people of the land?
- What if we made possible barcodes that allowed visitors to understand how the labor of the enslaved had contributed to the building of the city?
That there are so many spaces in the South that are beginning to peel back the layers of pain and silence is encouraging. A space to hear the stories of the still living elders that experienced terror first hand, a space to talk and come to terms with a path forward. It will require imagination and courage.
Imagining a future for our children
It’s easy to imagine that the child sitting in the carriage will witness the removal of the Lost Cause monument and others like it. It’s easy to imagine a future in which this same child is taught history in grade school that centers the stories of the Indigenous, LatinX, and Black people that are so central to the history and future of this county.
This outcome is not inevitable. Countries come to terms with their past inequity through engagement with it — we cannot wish a world into existence, maintaining it once we have it will be difficult. The past is still present for Black people in persistent health, education, and economic disparities. The past is present in persistent anti-Black policing. The past is present not that far from my doorstep. We have fully not excised these ghosts in white sheets.
I want to gift build a world for that child in which they would hold the racially just society as fundamental as air; in which that child would understand the crimes of the past and see as fundamental to their humanity to guard against it. Georgia and the other states in the South could be a birthing ground for a generation for which anti-racism is life. This world will not come from silence.
As an update, a judge ruled that the “monument” is a public nuisance and should be removed. A deadline has not been set for the conference. There are still confederate monuments and other tributes to the white supremacy based Confederacy. There are streets in Decatur, GA named after enslavers. Most importantly, the structural elements of white supremacy remain. Bringing about a just egalitarian society is a long, brick-by-brick undertaking.