Hot topic: The USA's Confederate icons

The United States is pulling down Confederate statues, but are they historically significant monuments or simply symbols of enduring American racism?

Sunday, November 5, 2017,
By James Draven

There's not much at Manassas National Battlefield Park, Virginia. It's a beautiful spot but — aside from the visitor centre — the only clue that two battles for the future of this country were fought here stands 20ft high, casting a shadow across me, and perhaps the whole nation.

"Isn't it hugely offensive to honour one of the country's most famous racists?" I ask my guide, while other visitors nervously examine their shoes. Built in 1940, the polished bronze likeness of 'Stonewall' Jackson, a Confederate leader who won a key victory here during the American Civil War of 1861-1865, looks down on my insolence.

This is over two months before the notorious incidents of racial hatred in Charlottesville, Virginia, in which white supremacists will protest at the removal of a statue of Confederate icon, Robert E Lee, and kill counter-protestor, Heather Heyer.

"Don't you have statues of important figures from the Second World War in Britain?" replies my guide.

"Yes," I answer, "but we certainly don't honour Stalin in Trafalgar Square, nor is there a statue of Hitler in Berlin." It's recently been argued that Admiral Nelson should be toppled from his column because he had racist ideas back in the 1790s, but he never started — and lost — a war in defence of slavery.

Finally though, the US is facing up to its history. Across the nation, Confederate statues and monuments are being torn down, often under the cover of darkness and without warning to prevent violence. And in Washington DC, right on the Mall, no less, stands an impressive edifice: the National Museum of African American History and Culture, opened in September 2016.

With 10 storeys, five above and five below ground, America's black history begins, appropriately, in the dark of the basement, with the enslavement of Africans brought across the sea. It's the start of a journey in which the US publicly confronts some brutal truths about the founding of the nation, including pointing out that George Washington, the man on the one dollar bill, was a slave owner. A statue of President Thomas Jefferson, standing beneath his legendary declaration ('all men are created equal') is placed beside a pile of bricks, each representing an enslaved person who built his famous Virginia plantation house, toiled on his land, and, in the case of his young slave, Sally Hemings, gave birth to his children.

On the upper floors, there's some much-needed levity, and nods to the impact of black music on white America: Public Enemy's boombox, Louis Armstrong's trumpet and one of Chuck Berry's Cadillacs.

A must-see for tourists, this should also be a compulsory school trip for every class in the nation. How must black children feel when they're educated in one of the 109 schools named after Confederates who fought to keep African Americans enslaved?

These Confederate tributes aren't historical relics of the Civil War: they were built in the 20th century as impotent symbols of white supremacy. Nor is tearing down statues erasing history: do visit Manassas, but know it can tell its story without a monument to Stonewall Jackson, just as Charlottesville doesn't need an effigy of Robert E Lee to remind African Americans they live in a country built on slave labour.

Pull the statues down, pull them all down. They're a disgrace to the ideals of the land of the free — and I ain't whistlin' Dixie.

Published in the December 2017 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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