The University of North Carolina Chapel Hill proposed to relocate a statue known as “Silent Sam” to a new University History and Education Center. The statue was originally dedicated in 1913 to honor students who died fighting for the Confederacy and became a “lighting rod” for protests in the year following the Charlottesville riots. It was eventually pulled down by protesters in August. While the trustees of UNC expressed their preference for the statue to be moved off campus (recommending the North Carolina Museum of History), it is impossible to do so under the current state law. The 2015 law states that if a statue is relocated it must be placed in an area of “similar prominence.” The controversial future placement of “Silent Sam” further demonstrates that the fierce debate about the presence of Confederate monuments in the United States is far from resolved.
By Emma Wonsil
It’s hard to forget the haunting images that emerged from Charlottesville, Virginia during the summer of 2017. There were groups proudly gathered under Nazi and Confederate flags, angry, young white men yelling furiously with their faces illuminated by torches, and a Dodge Challenger ramming into a crowd of counter-protesters. White supremacists gathered in the city for a “Unite the Right” rally, which was meant to both link factions of white nationalists and to protest the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee in Emancipation Park. This was part of a push to remove Confederate monuments across the country following the church shooting of nine African-Americans in Charleston by a white supremacist. These monuments celebrate leaders of the seceded South, a group of states fighting to preserve the institution of slavery.
Monuments and memorials are a form of public narrative. They establish what what a city or country wishes to literally set in stone, whether it be an event, a person, or a set of specific values. They are a physical representation of the story that we tell about ourselves. Monuments also shape our national memory, as we “conserve what is worth remembering and discard the rest (1).” We memorialize the past in an effort to keep these specific aspects of the past in our collective consciousness.
Narrative plays a significant role in ethics, since it conveys the lived experience of human beings. It is the mode by which we are able to grasp and comprehend experience that is not our own. Experience plays a significant role in moral theology, because it is one of the four sources (along with Scripture, tradition, and reason) of theological ethics.
If the only experience of the Civil War portrayed in our public sphere is one of Confederate honor and glory, how could we possibly have enough information to make thorough and accurate moral judgements?
The disproportionate representation of Confederate monuments in the United States conveys a public narrative that clearly disregards the impact of slavery on black lives as well as the country’s role in enslavement and oppression. In Alabama alone, there are over 100 public monuments dedicated to the Confederacy. While there are some scattered monuments that are dedicated to troops of color that fought in the Civil War, there is a conspicuous lack of public monuments dedicated to the experience of the black, enslaved population. When the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, dedicated to both the legacy of enslaved black people and victims of lynching, opened in the spring of 2018, the New York Times stated there is “nothing like it in the country.”
If an individual were to make a moral judgement on the Civil War and slavery based on the narratives we have prioritized in our public monuments, it would lack accuracy because it does not account for the crucial experience of those who were actually enslaved. This could possibly account for a public discourse that does not adequately reflect the brutality of chattel slavery in the United States. Bill O’Reilly infamously declared that the slaves that were forced to build the White House were “well fed and had decent lodgings provided by the government”, as if that justified involuntary labor. While O’Reilly represents the extreme end of the political spectrum, there was also an instance earlier this year at a school in Wisconsin where a teacher asked children to name three bad reasons and three good reasons for slavery. These reflect an incomplete national narrative that has failed to publicly recognize certain experiences.
Defenders of Confederate monuments argue that they are simple defending their heritage and the narrative of their ancestors. However, the narratives of their ancestors have not been historically belittled, but have been celebrated and immortalized through public monuments. A specific branch of moral theology, Catholic Social Teaching (CST), can offer suggestions on which narratives need to be brought forward. One of the tenets of CST is a special consideration to the poor, vulnerable, and marginalized. What people were poor, vulnerable, and marginalized? Slaves were not financially independent, as they were considered property themselves. They were at risk of being separated from their family, being raped, or subjected to brutal beatings and had no legal recourse because they were not protected under the law. However, it is not these narratives that are given specific consideration in our public square. Instead, it is the men of the Confederacy, men of power and wealth, not the marginalized, who are remembered.
These monuments are not just hunks of stone that we ignore on our daily commute – they are what we have collectively deemed worthy of remembering. Monuments reflect the narrative that we tell ourselves about our past. Narrative is a mode by which we can come to understand the experience of others. The experiences we are aware of are the ones we consider when making ethical judgements. If we are only exposed to one specific set of experiences (like the experience of the Confederate army) then our ethical framework will be incomplete. There are a variety of examples that show that this country has not comprehended how heinous our country’s practice of slavery was. As a country, we must recognize the narratives of the marginalized and bring them into the national consciousness in order to change the ethical discourse around the treatment of black lives in the United States.
1 Savage, K. (1997). Standing Soldiers, Kneeling Slaves: Race, War and Monument in Nineteenth Century America. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Emma Wonsil is a current candidate in the Ethics and Society Master’s program at Fordham University.