As a young student, of perhaps fifteen years old, I was the only brown face in a mostly white honors U.S. history class. I keenly remember learning about the Civil War. I had a particularly passionate and knowledgeable teacher freshman year. (I was fortunate to have a number of enthusiastic history teachers throughout high school, who helped cultivate my love of history). I recall sitting in this class learning about the valor and nobility with which both sides fought in the Civil War for causes they held dear. I memorized the names, their backgrounds, and their military prowess (or lack thereof). I furiously took notes on how the South battled to preserve the noble southern way of life and uphold the sovereignty of state-power as the North fought to maintain the Union. These narratives were reinforced when I would go home and watch the History Channel, where specials on the Civil War ran regularly.
Absent from such narratives, of course, were discussions of white supremacy and, to a lesser extent, preserving slavery. Sure, we were taught that “Lincoln freed the slaves” (a dubious statement at best given that the Emancipation Proclamation only granted freedom to captives living in Confederate states). And yes, there was the occasional mention that the South wanted slavery to spread into new states. However, these were watered-down explanations for the war, not simply diluted for fifteen-year-old minds but deliberately obscured. Such murky narratives allow for historical amnesia to creep in and the ability to rewrite history, for those audacious and savvy enough to try. But the very words of Confederate leaders communicated that the South seceded and waged war to maintain white supremacy and secure the institution of slavery. These were points deftly underscored by Ta-Nehisi Coates in his now famous Atlantic article from 2015. Coates wrote the article in response to the tragic murder of parishioners in a Charleston, South Carolina church by a white supremacist. After the devastating event, many called on Americans to reevaluate the legacy of the Confederacy once photos surfaced of the shooter proudly holding the Confederate flag. Calls to remove the Confederate battle flag from federal lands and to remove Confederate monuments quickly followed, with some success.
Now, these vestiges of the Civil war have again made the headlines after the horrific murders of a number of African Americans including Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd. In the wake of these tragedies, protesters throughout the nation have defaced, torn down, and demanded the removal of Confederate monuments, and some governmental leaders have finally taken action to do so, the governor of Virginia among them. Time will tell whether these efforts will ultimately bear fruit. As we consider the current moment, I offer my own reflections as a history professor, a resident of Richmond—the former capital of the Confederacy and the home of Monument Avenue, so named for the throughway of Confederate monuments which stretch for miles—and perhaps most importantly my perspective as a Black man.
I began this article in my high school classroom, not to criticize my former teacher. From what I recall, he was a thoughtful and engaging educator. Instead, I thought it would be a useful memory through which to understand the impact of historical revisionism and the inherently different realities of America for white and Black people. I grew up in the state of Delaware; a state culturally and geographically between the North and the South. Here the “Lost Cause” narrative held sway. According to this idea, deliberately propagated by groups like the Daughters of the Confederacy in the Jim Crow South, Southern intentions for the war were noble. Confederate leaders simply wanted to assert their freedom and maintain Southern culture, or so the story goes. The influence of this narrative runs so deep that I doubt my teacher even knew he was helping to perpetuate it. It wasn’t until I reached college, and began taking African American history courses in particular, that I was incensed by historical narratives I had known to be true.
This increasing desire to better understand the undervalued and often silenced underbelly of American history propelled me through graduate school. Through the years, much of my frustration gave way to intellectual curiosity and purpose. So when I arrived in Richmond for a job interview and toured the city, I encountered grand monuments to the men whose names and stories I memorized all those years ago. I later accepted the position at my current university and soon called Richmond home. Looking for somewhere to live within walking distance to the university, I even rented a property literally right outside of the monument of General Robert E. Lee my first year. To live in this space was to live the fascinating irony of inhabiting the former Confederacy as an African American. Everyone functioned normally even in the midst of monuments honoring slaveholding rebels to the very country contemporary southerners regularly champion and celebrate. Still, the irony was not lost on me. I was the descendant of enslaved peoples living next to the monument of a slaveholder, erected to remind people who look like me that they were subordinate and did not belong, especially in such an affluent space. Likewise the surprised and confused looks from some of my neighbors when I first arrived reminded me that I was not alone in my unease. They too seemed perplexed, albeit more by me than by the monuments.
Perhaps the recent protests domestically and abroad, including in Richmond, signal that the ever-present disconnect between white and Black realities may change to some degree. Many white allies appear more apt to listen, which is a useful start. As audiences of all races viewed the horrific murder of George Floyd, it appears that many white Americans are increasingly aware that their Black counterparts are forced to see public institutions and spaces very differently, whether the police, or statutes to men who died in large part to keep their ancestors in chains. For many African Americans, myself included, these monuments are physical reminders that we do not belong and should not anticipate equity: part of their original purpose in the Jim Crow Era. And while revising history to romanticize and rebrand a time and culture as aspirational is tempting, it cannot be displaced from the human suffering and exploitation at its very core. American history is far too often the story of dominant, idealized white narratives, but images like the torture of Mr. Floyd illuminate that African Americans regularly confront alternative, heart-wrenching realities. Indeed African American communities do not have the luxury of having idealized views of the past or the present. Instead their very survival depends on operating in a clear-eyed reality where racial oppression shapes their lives now and then.