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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

Chris Gavaler Explores the Multiverse of Comics, Pop Culture, and Politics

First, I doubt there’s much I will add to this topic that’s not been said elsewhere, and so unless you know and are interested in me personally, there’s not much reason to read this. Also, if you are a member of the Facebook page Rockbridge Civil Discourse, which I co-founded and co-moderate, you may have already heard me express some version of this first part:

I do not advocate “erasing history.” Memorials (such as statues and named locations and institutions) are not a part of the history that they memorialize. They are a history of how history has been memorialized, and so they are like history textbooks, only harder to change. To the best of my knowledge, every statue of a Confederate leader (Lee, Jackson, Davis, etc.) is an explicit celebration, not a neutral presentation of historical facts. Even so, I don’t want them erased. I think statues should be preserved but not displayed except in a carefully curated space.

I also have no desire to “attack,” “denigrate,” or “vilify” Lee, Jackson, or anyone else who fought in the Confederacy. But not celebrating is not the same as attacking. Ceasing to celebrate is also not attacking. I understand that these individuals were complex human beings who possessed a mix of traits, including some positive ones. I do not want to reduce them to their negative traits. I do not want to judge them harshly or unfairly or anachronistically by my contemporary values. But I don’t want to glorify them either. I want to understand them as human beings, not as monsters or saints.

Lee and Jackson have been described to me as honorable, loyal, brave, humble, ingenious, heroic, peaceful, and dedicated to the well-being of enslaved people through education. The memorials express the opinion that such attributes matter more than their other attributes. But I believe that slavery is so exceptionally and self-evidently repulsive that leading an effort to keep four million people enslaved cannot be offset enough to merit memorialization.

After 79% of the W&L faculty voted to approve a motion asking our board of trustees to removed “Lee” from our school’s name, the Washington Post headline the next morning included the adverb “resoundingly.” A friend emailed me a congratulations, but I had to say that the moment did not feel celebratory because, while some faculty members of color supported the motion, some objected to its inadequately inclusive process and a wrong-minded focus. I can literally only imagine their experiences. A queer-identifying friend described her experience when the Supreme Court ruled in favor of gay marriage: That was not what she had been fighting for, and celebrations that drew energy away from her continuing fight were just the latest in an ongoing series of obstacles.

I admit that I did not support the motion “for” anyone other than myself. I cannot claim that my vote was my way of supporting my school’s faculty and students of color if: 1) I did not first ask them if they desired that specific act of support, and 2) there were other things they desired more. If someone claimed to be doing something “for” me without first asking my opinion about it, and while also not doing other things that I care about significantly more, I can imagine speaking against their action, even if the action in itself were something that I might otherwise, albeit mildly, approve of.

I understand that changing names can be merely “cosmetic,” “performative,” or “symbolic,” and that such changes alone achieves little and potentially distracts from more important efforts. I have heard that argument from both white conservatives and black progressives now, and I agree with it. But since symbols do have symbolic significance, changing them is not meaningless.

A memorial to a Confederate leader is statement that white supremacy isn’t important. Confederate memorials means a society is willing not only to overlook racist actions but to celebrate those and other actions for reasons that are unrelated to race. It is a statement of priorities. Other things—regional loyalty, family pride, military prowess, etc.—are more important than four million human beings remaining in slavery.

I can literally only imagine what a black person experiences, but as a white person I experience Confederate memorials as directives to remain silently complicit in the legacies of slavery and Jim Crow. They’re hardly the only directives, or the most important ones, but they are some of the most flagrant. I may also be silently complicit in more significant ways. If a majority of black people defended memorials, I would accept that judgement. Still, I prefer my grandchildren to be born in a country that does not place people who committed extraordinary acts of white supremacy on pedestals. That feels to me like a minimal expectation.

I was recently accused of “propping up white supremacy” and “prioritizing racists” because I co-signed a Rockbridge Civil Discourse statement asking Lexington City Council to follow a process that all parties, whether for or against renaming the cemetery, could feel was fair. The accusation came from a white male progressive of roughly my age. I pointed out that many people in our community do not recognize white supremacy as white supremacy and so unless he had a strategy for persuading white conservatives about the existence and significance of unconscious bias and systemic racism his desire to “tear it all down” would fail.

I have regular conversations with conservatives who disagree with me about a range of issues, including Confederate memorials. I had a protracted conversation with the leader of an alumni organization that opposes removing Lee’s name from our school because we should instead “proudly celebrate” his legacy. Though I do not find it entirely convincing, the most effective argument I’ve heard on behalf of Lee and Jackson is that it is unfair that so many people now associate their names with racism. Maybe it is unfair. But if so, that unfairness does not counteract the fact that “Lee” and “Jackson” now primarily do mean white supremacy.

If I had grown up revering them because I had been taught that they should be revered, I imagine I might find the current meaning of their names bewildering. I imagine I would find it difficult to change something so deeply ingrained in me since childhood. I imagine I might feel attacked personally and might respond defensively and angrily. I imagine I might name a range of rationales for why Confederate memorials should remain, while avoiding the most overwhelming fact of these men’s lives: they chose to lead armies in a war to keep four million Americans in forced labor, poverty, torture, rape, and breeding. That’s why I asked for their names to be removed. I don’t think children, black or white, should be shaped by that reverence.

I’m glad my city council voted to remove Jackson’s name from our cemetery, and I am hopeful that my board of trustees will vote to remove Lee’s name from our school’s. Meanwhile, I will continue to work with members of my school and town to address more pressing needs.

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