Vox Populi: A Public Sphere for Politics and Poetry
Recently my wife and I were in Bentonville, Arkansas. The town square is like the setting of a Sherwood Anderson novel — quaint shops, courthouse. At the center of the square is a statue of a Confederate soldier.
We’re from St. Louis. Missouri’s divided history notwithstanding, a Confederate memorial feels vaguely sinister. We were struck by the fact that a mixed race couple cuddled in the square. Times change. Nonetheless, there was a time when Bentonville was quite comfortable with slavery. As was our hometown.
Racism is not a static fact. Racism is a state of being. Like all such states, it is a process. For the historian, this means historiography. How do we tell this history?
My beloved once said, “The question is not, ‘Am I a racist’? Everyone is a racist to some degree. The more meaningful question is ‘How am I a racist?’” The implied follow-up question being, “And what am I doing to change my racism?”
I love my home city of St. Louis. But I hate the segregation. So I wonder what it means when, right down from Union Boulevard, we have Confederate Drive, the sole purpose of which is to frame our one and only Confederate Memorial. How do we tell that story?
St. Louisans are a proud people. We’re the home of Chuck Berry. We have a first rate symphony, great universities, great poets. The Arch is one of the most beautiful – or, at least, one of the largest – abstract sculptures in the world. We fry the finest catfish in the Mississippi Valley, and play the sweetest baseball in the National League.
And then there’s Ferguson.
We speak of the Delmar Divide. You can draw a line right down Delmar, almost the middle of the city, and to the north you’ll find all the Black folk, and to the south all the white folk. Among St. Louisans, “the north side” means Black. When I taught in the St. Louis Public Schools, I would drive fifteen minutes east and north from my home. Often, I was the only white person I’d see until I came home to my beloved. Fifteen minutes west, and the opposite would be true.
Then there are folks who say that this is our heritage. And I get that. We’re not the Soviet Union. We don’t just write folks out of history. Or do we? My great-grand-uncle was mayor of St. Louis, and founded the professional fire department. John Wimer sided with the Confederates. And, for all his contributions to the city, there is nary a street, or even a firehouse, named after him.
There are not many things here dedicated to Confederates. Should there be? The Delmar Divide is the legacy of the Confederacy. Which brings me to the Confederate Memorial. This is our story. But how do we tell it?
The Confederate Memorial here has been the subject of debate for some time. It’s in a very out-of-the-way place in Forest Park, so the pressure to remove it has been, until recently, fairly minimal. Also, nobody wants it. So where to move it? The History Museum is just across the park, but they don’t want it.
The memorial is also going to be expensive to move. A widely quoted estimate is that it will cost $100,000 to move it to… where?
A lot of folks say they are of “two minds” about this issue. On one hand, the memorial represents our heritage, and on the other it represents our racism. But we all know about this business of people being of two minds. There is really only one mind. When folks say they are of two minds, what they mean is that there is the pain we inflict upon other people, and then there is the way we defend ourselves against all the pain we inflict.
I would like to offer a compromise.
Why not commission a new work of art to stand right beside the old? Why not tell the old story, and also tell the new?
There are certain practical consequences. We wouldn’t have to move the old memorial. We could spend any money raised to create a new work of art. This would create a few jobs.
Most importantly, a new work of art, juxtaposed to the old, would be a more accurate story – a coherent story, the fullness of history, a story that says this is who we were, and this is who we are becoming.
Copyright 2017 John Samuel Tieman
The monument is a 40-ton, 32-foot-tall granite column on the north side of Forest Park, displaying a bronze cast of a Confederate young man preparing to go off to war. It was erected in 1914 with $23,000 raised by the Ladies’ Confederate Monument Association. Today, it would cost five times that amount to move the monument, even if a place could be found for it.