Blog: You can't erase history // what's next? // when does it stop?
Updated: Mar 24
I've been contemplating the national dialogue surrounding the removal of monuments and changing of names. Those opposed are quick to claim, "You can't erase history!" and question, "What's next? Are we going to take down monuments of Thomas Jefferson? Rename Washington, D. C.? Cancel White Jesus? Where does it stop?"
Before I go any further, I just want to be clear on what we all know to be true -- when people ask when does "it" stop, they are not talking about the removal of monuments and other gestures that are merely stepping stones leading to the true task of eliminating racism from our hearts and institutions.
First of all, if you've found yourself thinking, saying or posting these responses, and you've never spent considerable time pondering the value of a name or a statue, then perhaps those responses are indicative of something else. Why would this be your first reaction -- the urge to preserve signifiers that scream with racist connotations?
Because the removal of monuments and the changing of names is also a signifier of the rusting away of racism in our society, which represents a threat to white supremacy, which is a threat to self-preservation. And when I say white supremacy, I'm not talking about its poster-children: the Klansmen, the neo-Nazis, the guy with a giant Confederate flag hanging over his garage and a noose hanging from the oak tree in his yard...all people we can shake our heads at and use to pretend like we're not connected to that same force that they display so fervently. I'm talking about you. Us. White people. The firm hold our whiteness has granted us in controlling our institutions and the basic instinct that causes us to defend our whiteness in response to a change in the status quo.
We don't care about monuments coming down. We don't care about the names of cities and buildings. We care about losing power. And each toppled monument represents that impending reality -- that in order to achieve racial equality in America, whites will need to lose, or give away power and de-centralize whiteness from our institutions.
So when you hear people claim "you can't erase history," that is code for a fear, and perhaps a knowing fear that the narratives we were taught in school, where brave white men convened to birth the strongest nation in the world, are not only incomplete, but often untrue. It is a response to cognitive dissonance, where a contradiction in perception and reality result in feelings of tension and discomfort. The alternative response would be to consider the fallacies of the narratives our identities are ultimately connected to, as white people. Which will certainly produce feelings of discomfort. But there is no growth without discomfort.
James Baldwin, American author and civil rights activist, said, "I imagine one of the reasons people cling to their hate so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with pain." Our hate is embodied in every monument and building or city name that raises racism on a pedestal, smacks it on welcome sign, or engraves it on a public building meant to serve...the public. And I imagine, like Baldwin, that so many are clinging to these vestiges of racism because their permanency means that we do not need to grapple with the pain of being inextricably linked to racism -- not just through our ancestry and our history, but through our current actions. History is not being erased by the removal of the monuments. The removal of the monuments is part of history and is, rather, illuminating the large parts of our history that are uncomfortable to think and talk about.
In this sense, "what's next?" can be viewed as a double dog dare. You've changed my narrative in just the slightest...do you dare to make me see myself even clearer? When people ask what's next, I truly believe that they know.
In a previous post, I mentioned a quote from Malcolm X that went along the lines of white people equating progress with stabbing a Black man 9 inches into his back and pulling the knife out two inches. That progress is not true if you still have a knife in your back. The removal of monuments and changing of names is akin to removing the knife. It is an inevitable part that leads to the real work that white people will need to perform in order to achieve real progress and heal the wound that they have caused. That real work is what's next, and it must be accomplished at every level of society -- from the child who can move from K-12 without ever having a Black teacher, much less having read a book from a Black author, to making voting more accessible, to having Congress represent the demographics of the country, and addressing the question of reparations and what that might look like.
This is what's next. And yes, it might involve taking down statues of slave-owning presidents and replacing them to update our evolving society. It might involve renaming Washington, D. C. America is a young country, unlike others who have gone through similar reckonings and changed the landscape of their institutions and capital cities as a result. And when it comes to Jesus...I don't think what's next will be so much about cancelling Jesus as it will be about understanding what it is we really worship at the altar of -- Christianity or whiteness. What would it mean for people, as Christians, to see their Jesus in his true form? What feelings come up when we think about that, and what are those feelings connected to?
This is the moment of deciding what to do with our cognitive dissonance. I think most of us who think or ask the question "what's next" already know this, and it is up for us to decide to be a part of history or continue to ignore it.
So this, all of this...when does it stop? The answer depends on what 'it' is for you. Does "it" mean the removal of monuments, which is about as uncomfortable as some of us are willing to get? Or does "it" mean achieving liberty and justice for all, which is the history of our nation that is always being written, that will never be final?
We have only just begun to think about making progress. We are not erasing history, we are just now coming to understand it. And regardless of what "it" means, I hope that "it" will never stop.
Yesterday, Charleston poet laureate Marcus Amaker published a poem he co-wrote in response to the removal of the John C. Calhoun statue that has towered over Marion Square. I hope that Calhoun's removal is just an initial step in facing the shadows that hang over our schools, industries, government agencies and events that fuel the Charleston tourism economy. In taking the pain that comes from letting go of our hatred and fear and uncertainty and turning it into something that might finally be called American.
What It's Like to Walk Under Shadows by Marcus Amaker and Asiah Mae
There is a shadow that no one talks about
We allow it to reside among us in our supermarkets
In our schools
At festivals where willing ignorant laughter topples over the chatter of my ancestors’ unsettled spirits.
It sits at the front of restaurants
Squinting at the faces in the back that prepare its plate
As if the cuisine it devours was not created from hands that were Blacker than the dark it casts.
It is this shadow that allows gentrifiers to lay claim to streets they were once afraid to walk down
To call death squads in fear of their neighbors who lived in their homes before they were born
It is this shadow that bursts into tears when met with critique
That holds on to trauma in the name of tradition
This shadow in broad daylight that makes me switch the tone of my voice
The cadence of my walk
The volume of my laughter
The enunciation of my words
This is the shadow
That forces me to use my poetry
The one thing I had left for me.
To inform of you its presence
Just for you to pretend
You don’t know it looms.
Even in the open air of an endless Lowcountry sun,
we live in a city of shadows. My Black footprints
are followed by a haunting. The never-ending silhouette
of supremacy. Some are subtle. And some are elevated so high
that I have been unable to rise above it, despite reaching
for my higher self. I have friends who have sunbathed under
dark symbolism. Sang spirited gospel hymns beneath the
shadow of a statue’s dead expression. Seen “truth, justice
and the constitution” tattooed in stone for the godfather
of a lost cause, a man who believed that slavery was a
“positive good.” We’ve partied at night below a ghost
of prejudice, only to look up and see that racism, when given a
spotlight, can cut through the night around us. Charleston
carries this weight. Being Black is not the burden it needs to
let go of.