Most Raleighites are familiar with the City of Oaks’ most infamous statue, the Confederate Monument on Union Square. Even short time visitors are likely to be greeted by the towering Confederate soldiers guarding the State Capitol, provided they spend any time downtown.
Recent cries from columnist Peder Zane implore the newly elected governor to “tear down this monument.” This rallying cry harkens back to Reagan’s challenge to Mikhail Gorbachev to “tear down this wall,” but the likening of the seventy-five foot tall monument to the largest and most concrete symbol of decades of communist oppression is a bit much. Zane’s article is not without merit and makes some damning points about the history of this monument. The memorial is indeed more than simply a monument to fallen soldiers, having been built amidst the racially charged elections of the late 1890s. The construction was celebrated amongst white supremacists at the time. Even the News & Observer, a mouthpiece for the largely racist Democratic Party at the time, cheered the monument with the headline, “The City Still Ours… No Negro Rule in Raleigh.” Mr. Zane’s argument is thorough, leaving little room for opposition. In a followup piece, we hear more of same, including the airing of some of the worst public response letters to the original piece, including the ubiquitous “It’s about heritage, not hate” and all the usual state’s rights arguments that we native North Carolinians have come to know so dearly. In the end, we are left with the statement:
The strongest arguments against my position held that the monument simply honors the sacrifices of the more than 40,000 Tar Heels who perished in that bloody war and that, even if we disagree with their cause, it is wrong to erase history.
I, for one, couldn’t disagree more. This call to forget the worst of our past smacks more of George Orwell’s Memory Hole than the fall of the Soviet Union. No doubt some would liken this memorial to the flying of Confederate Colors over the South Carolina capitol, but that comparison is disingenuous at best. What is at stake here is not the national flag of a defeated nation flying over the seat of state government, but a memorial of our dark collective past in a prominent public square. What better place for this discourse to take place than right in front of the Capitol building itself?
Instead of using the possibility of government funding for new public art as an opportunity to forget the past and springboard into a personal rant on destroying an important piece of our state’s history, perhaps the first piece of public art funded via this new dedicated stream should be a response to the Confederate Memorial. Why “tear it down” when there is such a grand opportunity to educate the public, particularly our children, about our horrific past and how it has helped shape who we are today? Certainly there is a strong argument to be made in favor of moving these pieces from such a prominent display to some alternate location, or perhaps incorporating new pieces of art into the capitol square as part of the continuing dialogue on race in our state and nation. But to suggest outright tearing the piece down is more than shortsighted; it’s dangerous.
Just as those who tout the inauguration of Barack Obama as the culmination of the Civil Rights Movement and seek to magnify a symbolic moment forget that it is only the beginning of an opportunity to heal many wounds, so too do those who declare that this memorial “no longer reflects the feelings of North Carolinians” overestimate the state of our society. They might as well be George W. Bush on the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln declaring “Mission Accomplished.”
I’ll leave you with this:
Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. —George Santayana
Before tearing down this monument we should take a good hard look at ourselves, our city, and our state. Don’t we have quite a way to travel before we can claim to be free from the damage done by the sin of slavery?