When studying abroad in Rwanda, learning about reconciliation and transformative justice following the Genocide Against the Tutsis, I found the memorials we visited most moving. They are honest, graphic, and jarring acts of remembrance and reckoning with history. No matter how painful the truth, the memorials and country itself maintains a commitment to honesty, responsibility, and seeking justice for victims of the Genocide. I tried to imagine what this kind of justice and reconciliation could look like in my own context, but I found this difficult.
While growing up in the Southeastern United States, stains in U.S. history, like slavery, were taught to feel so distant, so ancient. I cannot count how many times I have heard proclamations of racism being “over” or a “thing of the past.” But my family was started by a freedman who was a product of slavery and rape. We know this only because we have been able to trace our lineage back to a plantation in Alabama — a difficult task for most Black families today. Beyond this, my closest estimation of who my ancestors were comes from a spitty swab sent to a lab and a map with color circles on places in West Africa. My great-grandparent’s families were share-croppers, and my great-grandfather desegregated his workplace in the late 40s and has become a well-respected and honored elder in his city. My grandparents tell me stories about the Civil Rights Movement and their own experiences of navigating the racism of the South, and in many ways, our experiences are similar. I have been lucky to know my great-grandparents and my grandparents into my young adulthood and to hear their stories first-hand, which is how I know a past cannot be distant or “over”, especially when its memory and living consequence is speaking directly to you. Even when it is not speaking directly, history is not stagnant nor lifeless. History may unfold in a moment, but it is carried along with us. It lives in the backgrounds of our lives and in the corners of our communities in the form of art, statues, road names, buildings, et cetera. History is living, and whether we choose to reckon with it or not, it affects how we live, how we connect, and how we grow as a community.
South Carolina was the first state to secede from the nation in pursuit of protecting the institution of slavery. The South went on to fight in the Civil War in defense of slavery and lost. Still, 159 years later, the South hosts over 1,600 statues, monuments, and memorials to the confederacy and “lost cause” on public land.
These monuments were erected not for public memory, but in retaliation. They do not preserve history; they do not tell the truth about the war, what it was fought over, and how it impacted lives. These monuments honor and glorify men who fought for the protection of the institution of slavery and the continued oppression of Black Americans. Other symbols of the confederacy, like the confederate flag, continue to be aligned with right-wing nationalists and white supremacist groups.
To a Black American, these symbols, statues, buildings, and street names are all clear, brutal reminders of our country’s historic and continued oppression and marginalization of our people. They are threatening displays of power, reminders of where our country would prefer our place to be: subordinate. Black Americans feel and experience that subordination daily, and these symbols remind us that the past is still present.
Unlike Rwanda, the U.S has not laid our ugly history out to be reckoned with. We allow ourselves to indulge in the idea that history can have multiple “sides,” and while I agree there are multiple perspectives– important ones, too– this allows us to disagree on history, to deny and minimize the harm done, and ignore or wholly dispute sustained systemic oppression of marginalized communities in our country. For there to be justice, there has to be acknowledgement, responsibility taken, and reparations actively sought. The U.S. has never been able to do this for victims of its worst harms.
I was largely unaware of the impact of confederate monuments or their widespread presence in the communities that I have grown up in before I realized I was attending school inside of one. In 2017, I discovered my high school was named after a prominent confederate general, Wade Hampton III, one of South Carolina’s largest slave owners, and governor who was helped elected by a paramilitary group known for instigating violence upon Black citizens trying to vote. My school not only crafted its identity around the legacy of this man, but it celebrated it and encouraged students to “lead like generals” and take to heart values of our namesake. It is common for high schools in the U.S. to have mascots that symbolize toughness or dominance, especially in the South where high school sports can play a big role in community life. But my school’s mascot clearly resembled a confederate general, and the school’s logo was the shield and two combat swords used by the general in combat. The school handbook verified the symbolism’s link to the legacy of Wade Hampton III and cited values of the general that we honor. “Our seal signifies who we are and what we stand for…”, the handbook says.
As a Black student walking into a school named after a man who actively fought for the continuation of my people’s enslavement and oppression, with symbolism of the confederacy painted as large murals in the hallways, and daily reminders to actively embody the values of a confederate general, I felt sick. I could never escape the reminder of the painful history that my school represented and honored. Even through my last year of high school, not even in my history course, did we ever about the truth of this history, we only continued glorifying a perpetrator in the name of school spirit and pride.
I created a petition to my community’s school board to change the namesake of my school and honor someone who better represented our community values. But what I didn’t know at the time was that just being named after a confederate general made my school a protected confederate monument under South Carolina law. According to South Carolina’s Heritage Act no one in my community had any jurisdiction over the changing of the name— a name change could only be granted by a ⅔ majority vote in the South Carolina legislature in our state’s capitol.
Despite the protection of the law and denial of responsibility from local representatives, the petition to change the name gained a lot of traction on social media and quickly reached over 1,000 signatures in a couple of days. I faced an unruly amount of backlash, though. From intimidating comments on my personal social media calling me the N-word, telling me to “go back to Africa”, to false allegations that I was a rich northerner who moved to South Carolina just to cause a stir and death threats. It quickly became clear that a community dialogue like I had imagined would not come to fruition. I was facing the extension of the racism and white supremacy that my great-grandparents and grandparents had.
I spent my last year of high school, as a 17-year-old, writing and interviewing for the local news, fighting for something to be done about the name of my high school and other confederate monuments in my town. I even debated on a panel of adults three times my age in front of a large community audience, including my school board representative who refused to acknowledge racism could possibly exist at my school because she, as a white woman, had “never personally seen it.”
In the end, I was not able to have a normal high school experience— I felt scared and uncomfortable in the very place that is supposed to be a student’s safe space outside of their home. Teachers and administrators in my school stood publicly against me, and other adults in power refused to listen to me. I continued to speak out, and though I had admirers who encouraged me to continue the conversation and complimented me on my courage, I found myself largely alone in a very complicated debate over “Southern heritage.”
Those in opposition to changing the name feared that we would be erasing history. Others saw no problem with the legacy of the man behind the namesake– they called my petition “revisionist history.” But like many of the confederate monuments erected in the South, the namesake of the high school was changed following the mandate to integrate. The school opened in 1960 consolidating two nearby high schools, Paris High School and Taylors High School. Greenville County avoided integration for almost a decade and did not integrate until 1969 following a court order. The high schools that came to make up Wade Hampton High were previously named after a nearby mountain and the neighborhood the school sits in. I find it no coincidence that just as Black students were allowed to attend the school, the name was changed to honor someone who clearly represented how community members felt. The intentions are clear: the name of the school was an act of intimidation, to remind Black students and community members that they were not welcome.
It was in these years that I truly saw the divide in our very understanding of our country, but I did not have the language to contextualize it until I went to Rwanda. The U.S.’s failure to reckon with its history truthfully, wholly, and to seek justice following the incidents of harm has created the phenomena of two Americas– half of our country lives in denial, oblivion, and purposeful ignorance.
Our communities should be able to come together and host dialogues about what stories we want to tell about our community, who we should honor, and what values we want to uphold. No matter how unconscious we are of our community history, symbolism speaks. These monuments don’t tell full histories– and that will always be a problem of erecting statues and monuments for remembrance and celebration, but we can and should at least make sure our public displays of history are honest and support legacies and values that are ethical.
The Southern Poverty Law Center identifies at least 1,747 confederate monuments still standing in the U.S. The majority stand on public land in the Southeastern U.S. At least 114 monuments have been removed in recent years, and we continue to see slow progress in conversations across the South. This past summer, in South Carolina, a statue of John C. Calhoun, a staunch defender of slavery and large slave-owner, was removed in Charleston following heavy protest of confederate monuments after the murder of George Floyd, an innocent Black man who died at the hands of grave police misconduct. Protests of these monuments continue to unfold throughout the Southeast with varying degrees of response. In South Carolina, multiple bills have been introduced to the state legislature calling for revision to the Heritage Act in 2021 so that local governing bodies can decide how to best address the monuments in their community.
I am lucky to know my family’s history and to know the stories of my family members who led lives in times when the U.S. looked very different. That is why it is painful to see reminders that the world is not changed like I and many others were taught in school. Our past is not so distant nor disconnected from us. I have hope that one day there will only be statues, street names, and other monuments dedicated to people who truly embody the values and diversity of our community, but there are deep wounds here that cannot be ignored even after removing confederate monuments. We cannot live in two Americas forever. I seek truth and reconciliation for my community. There is history to be reckoned with and justice to be served.
Image source: Internet
Asha Marie is studying Advocacy and Justice at Furman University in South Carolina, USA. In high school, her advocacy work revolved around the removal of confederate monuments and encouraging more honest displays of public history. Her work today is centered around issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion. Currently, she is mentoring high school students in her community and supporting their advocacy projects for positive change.