Confederate memorial should be removed
I think my 7-year-old niece asks too many questions.
These days, she’s resolved to become a chemical scientist. Her playtime is peppered with How?s and Why?s that neither her Uncle Brence nor really anyone else in my family can actually answer.
To be sure, the best part of returning home to Barnwell County for me is time spent with her, my sister, and my parents, who’ve lived here their entire lives. But not having all of the answers for a little one so relentlessly committed to having the facts at her eager little fingertips can be disappointing.
An experience I had on my most recent visit home for Christmas underscores this frustration.
On a trip with my family through downtown Barnwell after lunch, we drove past the Confederate memorial, the Confederate flags ornamenting it fluttering in the cold wind. My little niece’s eyes peered out of the backseat window. The courthouse, the county’s seat of justice, ironically perched on the other side of the street behind her.
I thought at that moment: Do I have an answer prepared for when my niece, older and more knowledgeable, asks me what those flags represent? Or what the memorial is to commemorate?
Sure, I suppose I could reiterate what the memorial, itself, states: That the monument and flags are simply to honor the “heroism” of those who fought for the “rights of states” during the Civil War. Or as those who still celebrate Confederate Memorial Day in May might describe: to commemorate those who defended the South from the Northern “invader,” those who died gallantly to protect the “Southern way of life.”
Except that my niece probably would be suspicious—and rightly so—of such dangerously disingenuous answers. She likely would be healthily skeptical, at least if she had already begun to seriously, and honestly, engage in constructing an accurate portrayal of this country’s painful history.
She’d know that my answers, much like the ones I give her in response to her innocent chemistry questions, just don’t add up. That “states’ rights” belie the horrific racial violence Confederate soldiers fought to uphold. That the “Southern way of life” necessarily included the terrible oppression of her own ancestors and millions of other black folks—only because they were black. That “heroism” hardly describes the cowardice men and women demonstrated in defending the brutal terrorism of people of color. That the Confederate history is one that we ought to acknowledge, but acknowledge with shame and remorse. And that reckoning with such shame is a necessary step for healing this country’s ugly, persistent racial divide.
I can imagine my niece proceeding to make the very natural comparisons between this nation’s acts and the atrocities of other countries she’ll have learned about in her history classes. After all, they’re not difficult logical leaps to make.
She’d likely consider, for example: Would Germany tolerate a memorial commemorating Nazi soldiers for their “heroism,” their “courage,” their “devotion” and their “convictions”? Would the world tolerate a “Nazi Memorial Day”? “Of course not,” I’d respond. Indeed, I’d explain, Germany does the opposite; that country intentionally works to publically memorialize Nazi Germany’s dishonorable violence against Jewish people, and the people who sought to protect Jews. And Germany does so in solemn, sorrowful remembrance.
“Why, then, Barnwell County’s intense investment in celebrating the Confederacy, despite the hideous historical truth it represents?” I can imagine my niece asking in so many words.
And for all of the questions my niece poses to me that I can’t answer, that’s the one that saddens me the most. Because I, despite living here nearly all of my life, cannot give her an answer.
After all, I’d have to confess to her, there is an alternative Southern history that we could all celebrate with honor and pride. A history of those Southerners who actually resisted slavery and racial violence in clever, creative, and courageous ways. Where are the commemorations for those heroes and heroines?
The Confederate memorial, and Confederate flags generally, should be removed from Barnwell County’s public spaces. If for no other reason, for our children.
But hey, maybe it’s just that my niece really does just ask too many questions.
Formerly of Blackville
Brence Pernell was born and raised in Blackville. He is a lawyer and former history teacher in South Carolina. He can be reached at email@example.com.