The Smoldering Embers in Our Presence

Today, I want to conclude the discussion from the previous two posts over the ways that we create memorials and remember the past, particularly in the South. In an interview with Ezra Klein, executive director of the Equal Justice Commission Bryan Stevenson commented, “What we do in the memorial spaces says a lot about who we are.” There is a lot of truth in this short sentence. The ways that we shape, and as I talked about in the last post, mythologize the past tells us what we think about the present and our current social milieu.

These “monuments” do not tell the other side of the story. As I’ve written about numerous times, there are sites that are starting to change this; the Whitney Plantation being one of them. These “monuments” frame the men who stand atop them or whose names appear in stone as heroes of some bygone era when everything was magnolias in bloom and lazy days on the porch drinking lemonade. What these “monuments” do not show are the enslaved people who made such a life possible for those in power. Places of memory like the Whitney Plantation and the National Lynching Memorial work to bring to the forefront those who the “monuments” continue to subjugate.

I cannot help but think about my recent trip to an archive with my students where the voices that we do not hear in these public spaces appear. As my students began looking at archival materials from the late eighteenth to the early nineteenth century, I began thumbing through a collection of papers in the collection. The first folder I pulled out was simply labeled something like “Value of Slaves” (I do not remember the exact title). The folder contained what amounts to a multi-page ledger that listed the names of enslaved individuals on the left and prices on the right with a total at the bottom of each column. As I stared at that page, filled with names of people I have never met, chills ran down my spine at the sheer number of individuals this family owned and at the complete disregard for their humanity.

My daughter was with me at the time, and I simply laid out the folder and asked what she saw on the pages. She asked me what the numbers were: how much they got paid, how much they made for the plantation, etc. When I told her it was how much they were worth to the family, in a monetary value, her perspective changed. Most people do not see these items. If they do, I wonder what kind of response they would have? Would they just say, as someone said to me when I expressed my disgust at such a thing, “They [the owners] treated it as a business”? Yes, they did treat their chattel, land, crops, and property as a business, but does that excuse the owners from the way they treated and chronicled the people they enslaved?

Bill of sale for Ezekiel (Whitfield Papers Auburn University)

A couple of the other folders in the same box caught my attention as well. There was the prerequisite folder filled with bills of sale, there was a folder of wills that even had lines for who the slaves would go to, and there was a contract for an overseer on the property. However, two folders stood out. One were pieces of paper, from a notebook, that trace the genealogy of the enslaved individuals that the family owned. Each family had a page, and the notebook listed date bought, children, marriage, and death. Another folder lists the “class of Negroes.” This folder contains a few sheets with lists of enslaved workers and what plot of land and crop they would work for a certain year or season. Again, what would people say if they actually saw these types of lists in person? What would they say if they understood the ways that those folders contain within them the names of people who were held in bondage? What would they say if they knew how much those pages continue to affect us today in a myriad of ways? What would they say?

Later in his interview with Klein, Stevenson commented on the “myth” that the South creates/ed for itself. Speaking about Alabama, he said,

In this country, we don’t talk about slavery. We don’t talk about lynching. Worse, we’ve created the counternarrative that says we have nothing about which we should be ashamed. Our past is romantic and glorious. In my state of Alabama, Jefferson Davis’s birthday is a state holiday. Confederate Memorial Day is a state holiday. We don’t even have Martin Luther King Day in Alabama. We have Martin Luther King/Robert E. Lee Day.

Our two largest high schools are Robert E. Lee High and Jefferson Davis High. They’re both 90-some percent African-American. If we don’t think it matters, then I think we’re just kidding ourselves. We do think it matters; that’s why we have a 9/11 memorial. What we haven’t done is understand what we are saying about who we are.

What does it say that Alabama, and Mississippi, still celebrate “Confederate Memorial Day“? What does it say that two high schools, both named after “heroes” of the Confederacy, are “90-some percent African-American”? What does it say that the Confederate White House in Montgomery focuses on cotton production, not slavery? What does it say that last week the governor of Alabama signed the Alabama Memorial Preservation Act, a bill that “bars the removal, renaming, removal and alteration of monuments, memorial streets, memorial buildings and architecturally significant buildings located on public property for 40 or more years,” into law? What does it say that in Selma, where Martin Luther King Jr, John Lewis, and countless others marched, there is a “monument” to Nathan Bedford Forrest?What does it say?

I want to end this post an excerpt from Ernest J. Gaines A Lesson before Dying (1993). As Grant Wiggins brings Miss Emma to the courthouse to see Jefferson, he describes the building and the surrounding area for the reader. He tells us,

The courthouse, like most of the public buildings in town, was made of red brick. Built around the turn of the century [1900], it looked like a small castle you might see in the countryside somewhere in Europe. The parking lot that surrounded the courthouse was covered with crushed seashells. A statue of a Confederate soldier stood to the right of the walk that led up to the courthouse door. Above the head of the statue, national, stated, and Confederate flags flew on long metal poles. The big clock tower struck two as I parked opposite the statue and the flags. It took Miss Emma a while to get out of the car, so by the time we came into he sheriff’s office, the clock on the wall there said five after two. (68-69)

Before they even enter the courthouse, Grant and Miss Emma experience subjugation through the edifice, the statute, and the flags. The comparison of the courthouse to a “small castle” calls to mind a fortification that one must protect against invasion. Add to this statue of the Confederate soldier who stands, as if on guard, and the military nature of the flags, and Grant and Miss Emma receive a message that they are entering into a territory where they are not welcomed, even if the edifice houses the imprisoned Jefferson.

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Courthouse in New Roads, LA 1902

This is the same feeling that the fifth grade student that Mitch Landrieu invoked as she would walk by the statue of Robert E. Lee everyday. This is the same feeling that students at Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis high school feel when they enter the halls. This is the same feeling that Kayla Warner felt as she walked through the president’s mansion at the University of Alabama.

Should our pubic spaces invoke these feelings in individuals on a daily basis? No!

Should we celebrate “heroes” of the Confederacy in the manner that we do? No!

Should we chalk up slave owners’ ledgers of their human chattel as just business? No!

Should we continue to hope for the idyllic past that never, ever was? No!

Should we feel shame? As Stevenson puts it, “I think we have to increase our shame — and I don’t think shame is a bad thing.” Yes!

We need to feel shame. We need to address it. We do not need to hide. We do not need to look around and say, “Everything’s all right.” I felt shame when I opened that ledger. I felt pain when I looked at the names inscribed there. Even though I had no personal connection, I felt remorse. The contents of that folder, with those names alongside their value, are the lingering embers that smolder in this country and that we continue to fan. Unless we address these issues in full, they will continue to smolder beneath the trash that we pile on top of them and flare up, engulfing everything around them at a moment’s notice.

This is why the “monuments” need to go from public spaces. We do not need to forget them. They are part of the long sordid history of this country and the construction of race it has wrought. However, they do not need to be in spaces where they symbolically subjugate people.

What are your thoughts?  Let me know in the comments below or on Twitter: @silaslapham.

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