In what seems to be the boiling over of racial tension between white nationalists and various ethnic groups, the protests in Charlottesville, Virginia reignited the debate over removing statues that memorialize Confederate leaders throughout the United States.
The events that transpired revolve around a central question: Is it inherently wrong to honor Civil War heroes or historical figures if they stood for violence, hatred or racism? To me, the answer is no. The intent of these monuments isn’t to spread racism but rather to honor a key figure in the timeline of U.S. history. “Bad” historical figures helped shape the legacy of the United States, maybe more so than “good” ones, so preserving their legacies is important.
It won’t do watershed movements justice if people discard or ignore the so-called bad events from our past. In removing the statues, people take it upon themselves to rewrite the narrative of the past. Instead, we need to learn from history. I still remember my high school history teacher who justified the course’s importance on the first lecture slide: “’Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it,’ said George Santayana.” We can learn many lessons from past events, so why can’t we do so from Confederate monuments?
“It’s sad to see the history and culture of our great country being ripped apart with the removal of our beautiful statues and monuments. You…can’t change history, but you can learn from it. Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson—who’s next, Washington, Jefferson?” President Donald Trump wrote in a couple of tweets.
There’s some truth to Trump’s tweets about the Charlottesville situation, and this is evident in the conflicts that other countries have with certain memorials as well.
In Taiwan, for example, monuments of Chiang Kai-shek were erected in the 20th century to promote a sense of nationalism in the wake of a civil struggle against Mao Zedong. As an advocate of martial law, Kai-shek and his legacy live on in over 1,000 statues that commemorate him. However, opponents of the shrines want the statues to be tore down for various reasons, like de-politicizing the army or to distancing the province from autocratic rule. These statues were not created with intent to cultivate his iron rule, however, but rather they served a positive purpose — promoting an “allegiance to his government and a sense of national identity among the local population.”
Kai-shek’s rise to power came at a testy time in China’s history, when China was trying to figure out its political identity amid a struggle of rival ideologies. Soon thereafter, Taiwan became a sovereign democratic nation, a stark contrast from communist China. People in Taiwan are asking for the removal of these monuments in an effort to be viewed as independent from China. However, this scenario is different from the Charlottesville one. These monuments were actually erected as this historic event was unfolding, not years later. If Taiwan’s statues are taken away, history gets taken away as well.
Another instance of a contentious memorial is in Fenway Park, home of the Boston Red Sox. There is a street that lines the historic ballpark named Yawkey Way, which pays homage to Thomas Yawkey, the team’s owner from 1933-1976. The Hall of Fame owner guided the Red Sox to three American League pennants under his ownership but could never win a title, as the organization was under the Curse of the Bambino for under 100 years. During Yawkey’s ownership, he resisted integration during the mid-1950s before the color barrier was broken.
However, the memorial was installed to honor Red Sox history and not to commemorate Yawkey’s racist tendencies. When people feel personally attacked by something as trivial as a street name, the real pain that marginalized victims experience is diluted.
In the end, it is important to understand the evolution of human history. In order to retain long term knowledge, repetition and reinforcement are vital. With statues that remind us of our past, we are better equipped to make future decisions. If we discard bits and pieces of our history, we slowly and surely halt progress to a standstill as well.