Columns, Opinions

Campanelli ’18: America deserves better than Confederate statues

By
Staff Columnist
Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Anyone who knows me knows that I am a proud Virginian. I am a proud native to a small rural county just southeast of Charlottesville. On Aug. 12 I attended the counterprotest to the “Unite the Right” rally that brought hundreds of white nationalists to my home state. I witnessed firsthand the hate, bigotry and violence that the white nationalists inspired. A group of people commandeered and terrorized a city I call home. In the wake of the terrorist attack in Charlottesville and the mass violence and destruction of the city, many have advocated for the removal of the Confederate statues that these racists continue to defend, but others have stated that they remain an important part of U.S. history and should stay. President Trump has even weighed in, saying the taking down of Confederate statues is “so foolish,” and that “they’re trying to take away our culture.”

It is time for these Confederate statues to be removed and more accurately historicized. While people from all walks of life have weighed in on this topic, I think of my own personal experience as a kid who got swept up in the broader culture’s reverence for the Confederacy. In the 4th grade my class was required to do a research project on influential actors in the Civil War. I chose Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy. During this project I became enthralled with the man who led a government that actively fought to tear apart the United States and preserve the institution of slavery. Like others around me, I justified his actions as “fighting for states’ rights” and “honorably standing alongside his southern brothers.” I respected his “honor,” “courage,” “leadership” and “conviction.” Even as my parents and my teacher told me that Jefferson Davis was not a hero, I stood by my Confederate idol.

My parents tried to persuade me otherwise, and they took me to Monument Avenue in Richmond, Virginia — a street that is lined with monuments ranging from Confederate leaders to the world-famous tennis player Arthur Ashe. But I only wanted to see one monument in particular, that of Jefferson Davis. I stood before the memorial in awe of the Confederate president who once governed the entire Southeast from Richmond. With his arm outstretched he looked into the distance appearing stately, justified and honorable. There was my hero, right in front of me, standing larger than life.

Later that year I went to a Civil War gift shop and wanted to purchase a Confederate hat and outfit. My mom looked down at me — grey fatigues in my hands — with disappointment. She would not let me purchase the Confederate outfit because she said they fought for the wrong cause. But I fought back. I suggested that they fought for states’ rights. They fought for their southern brothers. I went so far as to say that if I was alive during the Civil War, I would have fought for the South because I was a proud Southerner.

But as I began to grow up and study in depth the history of the Civil War, Reconstruction and the Civil Rights Movement, I gained exposure to history outside of my small rural county, and I began to see the Confederacy as the evil it really was. I now see Jefferson Davis as the terrible slaveholding rebel who fought against the United States and I detest the motivations of the Confederacy. But these memories confirm an ever-important truth. The hundreds of Confederate statues that line towns and cities across the United States need to be removed from their pedestals. As kids, like my 4th grade self, stare up at them, they memorialize and honor a sickening element of American history. These monuments reinforce to people of all ages that the Confederacy was something honorable and prestigious. They instill this idea in children like me at a young age and make frank discussions about history and race difficult for young people. These statues perpetuate a false image of the Confederacy and propagate a culture in which Confederate leaders, and the causes they fought for, are not decried as evil and fundamentally un-American, but are rather referred to as stately and patriotic. We need to own this truth and begin the process of reversing it.

I am a proud Virginian and I am a proud Southerner, but these monuments must go. They are not accurate representations of history. They were built during the Jim Crow South as an act of defiance toward equality among races. They do not accurately recognize why these men fought for the Confederacy, that they fought to destroy the United States, or the terrible atrocities they committed against the slaves in the South. Taking these monuments down and moving them to a museum is not a destruction of, as Trump says, “our culture,” but an acknowledgement of the troubling history of the United States and a recognition of why these statues were actually erected.

If we want to move this nation forward, then it is time to abandon the myth of the “lost cause” and confront the bigotry, hatred and racism that were pervasive throughout our nation’s history and that sadly continue on in this moment. If we fail to address this issue now, more young children, like my younger self, will continue to think that Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee are worth idolizing. We will fail to truly and accurately acknowledge our nation’s past and fail to reconcile this history. Our inaction will perpetuate a cycle that does not accurately teach history, but distorts it — at the expense of younger generations. We must be honest with our history and with the culture of racism in this country. By moving these statues to museums, contextualizing their historical significance and owning up to the history of the Confederacy, we can start to better represent “our culture” for what it really was and currently is.

Bryce Campanelli ’18 can be reached at bryce_campanelli@brown.edu. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and other op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.