For much of my life there was no debate on the display of racist symbols such as the rebel flag, or statues erected to memorialize mass-murdering sex traffickers like Columbus.
For a smaller time in my life there was some debate, but few listening and no one taking action.
Today, for the first time in my life, it finally feels as if we are potentially at the cusp of a momentum of change.
From Nascar banning the rebel flag from their properties and events, to congress wanting to strip all military assets of names/dedications that glorify the confederacy, to the Speaker of the House calling for statues of traitors be removed from the Capitol, we are beginning to see positive movement that so many of us have long hoped for.
Even though there is finally a momentum building, there is also an endless number of racists who insist that we must keep all of our monuments, and who continue defending display of a flag long since defeated. The fall-back argument they use time after time is simply that we must “remember history, and not erase it.”
Of course, those who say this have often already forgotten history– such as the fact that most confederate monuments were built between the 1890’s and 1950 during the era of Jim Crow in order to intimidate people of color, or that Georgia and South Carolina only added the rebel flag during the civil rights movement as a way to express resistance to equality. Or better yet, they try to redefine what the rebel flag means (AKA, re-writing history), when it actually means “We quit the United States and are keeping our slaves– and we double dog dare you to come down here and do something about it.”
These things are not so much relics of history as they are vestiges of white supremacy.
(Side note, isn’t it kinda strange that the people who fly a flag that literally means “We quit America” also like to call themselves American patriots?)
Regardless of the underlying racism inherent in wanting to display these things or glorify those leaders of evil, this idea that keeping these vestiges prominently visible in our country is the best way to remember history, is simply wrong.
Displaying symbols of the confederacy and erecting monuments to those who betrayed America and thought it was okay to buy and sell human beings, is not how we remember correctly– or how we remember at all. In fact, doing so actually leads us to destigmatize, re-write, and forget something that must never be forgotten.
It is the total banishment and prohibition of these symbols and monuments that is the far more powerful way to ensure there is a collective memory of our history and national shame.
Allowing something to remain prevalent through multiple generations is actually how history is forgotten or rewritten. Case in point are those who have grown up with the rebel flag and now try to tell us it magically means something different than what it actually means. It is the same with monuments built to memorialize confederate leaders– somehow it slowly shifts from something built to intimidate people of color, to becoming something important to keep because it’s “part of history.”
We must keep these things as a nation in order to remember our history, you say?
Um, no– no, we don’t.
The United States would do well to learn a lesson from Germany, a nation who has chosen the far more effective way of remembering and preserving their history: banishment of the symbols or any glorification of their past national sin, or the leaders who led them to it.
Germany will forever be my second home– it is the place I lived in my late teen years throughout my early 20’s. And from my years living there I can tell you one thing is for certain:
Germany remembers their history far better than Americans do, and they do it without flying Nazi flags at football matches or giant statues of Hitler or Himmler.
It is illegal to display nazi symbols in Germany– it is even illegal to give the nazi salute, and this is something that actually preserves them in history– it traps them in national shame so that they cannot slowly become less offensive or take on slightly new meaning for a future generation. The fact that it is illegal to deny the factualness of their historical atrocities, that they criminal charge surviving Nazis to this day– no matter how old they are when they are discovered, and that memorials remembering that period of their history are memorials to their own victims instead of to those who perpetuated it, is how one correctly remembers and preserves history.
Why? Because Germany recognizes these symbols are not harmless relics of the past, but are Volksverhetzung– something that incites hatred of others. It is no different than the rebel flag of the shameful American south, or monuments to commemorate evil men– they are our Volksverhetzung.
So you say that we need the rebel flag and confederate monuments so that we don’t forget or re-write our own history?
In all my years in Germany I never saw a statue of Hitler in a town square, or a Nazi flag flying in someone’s front yard. Even when shopping antiques, anything from that era which had a nazi symbol on it was required to have that evil symbol covered up as something too vile for a passing eye.
It was because of this– not despite it– that I’d never met a German who was not keenly aware of their history and the collective shame for what their parents and grandparents had done.
While so many keep saying we need these things lest we forget, German culture, I assure you, is very much a culture of remembrance…
And it is the absence and forbidden nature of some things in Germany that constantly remind them.
So, if you really mean what you say about how important it is that we remember our history and learn from it instead of erasing it, let’s do what has already proven to work in Germany:
Let us, as a people, banish and outlaw these symbols and monuments under an eternal blanket of shame– for it is their conspicuous absence from our culture that will call us to remembrance with a voice that speaks far more loudly.