As we reflect on the meaning of Independence Day, I can’t help but shake the feeling that true independence is not reflected in the landscape of America. As we think about the struggle to remove Confederate monuments throughout the South, and the backlash that has been received, we are reminded of the importance of history (whether it is truthful or revised). The mayor of New Orleans, Mitch Landrieu, gave an impassioned speech as to why the Confederate monuments needed to come down.
The historic record is clear: the Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, and P.G.T. Beauregard statues were not erected just to honor these men, but as part of the movement which became known as The Cult of the Lost Cause. This ‘cult’ had one goal — through monuments and through other means — to rewrite history to hide the truth, which is that the Confederacy was on the wrong side of humanity. First erected over 166 years after the founding of our city and 19 years after the end of the Civil War, the monuments that we took down were meant to rebrand the history of our city and the ideals of a defeated Confederacy.
It is self-evident that these men did not fight for the United States of America, They fought against it. They may have been warriors, but in this cause they were not patriots.
These statues are not just stone and metal. They are not just innocent remembrances of a benign history. These monuments purposefully celebrate a fictional, sanitized Confederacy; ignoring the death, ignoring the enslavement, and the terror that it actually stood for.
And let’s not even touch the fact that the Confederacy was a bunch of traitors; they separated from the United States over slavery and the economic windfall they received from subjugating human beings. Every time a Confederate flag flies, it is not a sign of rebellion; it’s the sign of a traitor.
Sure the South came back. But the Confederacy is like a spouse who cheated. The couple may work out their differences, but it doesn’t erase the betrayal.
What made me start to think about this topic was a thread on Twitter by an activist of color named Samuel Sinyangwe. He had gone to Barbados for the first time and saw a monument named Bussa (aka the Emancipation Statue). It’s a beautiful, impressive and important statue celebrating a slave who led the largest rebellion against slavery in Barbados back in 1816. It is prominently featured in the center of the city. He is considered a national hero. Samuel mentioned he had never seen anything like that before, and certainly not in the United States. As a result of this comment, folks from around the Caribbean (including Cuba) shared their country’s monuments to the brave slaves who fought for independence. See the photos here.
So if Confederate history is so important that the fight to keep their monuments stretches all the way to the halls of Congress, why aren’t there monuments to the great slaves who fought for their independence, their freedom, and their humanity? What about a beautiful bust of Harriet Tubman, Nat Turner or Sojourner Truth? Or how about this — for every Confederate statue, build a monument to a hero of the Civil War (both soldier and slave)?
We do have a statute of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in Washington, D.C. While that is all well and good, that pales in comparison to the many who gave their lives very early in the struggle, paving the way for Dr. King to also give his life for independence and equality.
What does this fight tell our children? What does this debate tell people of color?
I leave you with this thought on Independence Day. Independence Day to me represents opportunity. It represents the chance to keep fighting, to keep pushing for equality. But I also use it as a day of reflection — looking at how far we’ve come, but how far we yet have to go.
Symbolism is everything.