Empty Pedestals

Forrest_Park_Memphis_TN_07Like pretty much everyone else in the US, I have an opinion about statues that honor Confederate leaders. At first, I had mixed feelings. After all, tearing down a statue doesn’t erase centuries of oppression. Moreover, the educator in me wondered if placing the statues in context would be a good compromise. For example, I imagined a statue of Nathan Bedford Forrest surrounded by statues of every person who was killed by the KKK. However, this didn’t satisfy me either. However, when I read historian Kevin M. Levin’s article in The Atlantic, I saw an answer that made sense to me.

Levin echoes my concerns as an educator who used the monuments as classrooms. He saw the potential of using monuments to discuss the legacy of the Civil War, the rise of hate groups, and resistance to the Civil Rights Movement. Levin said he once thought that “Monument sites became classrooms where I could teach about the long and difficult history of racism in America. Taking them down seemed to represent the antithesis of my goals as a teacher.” Teaching history means exposing the less savory parts of our journey. The monuments embodied these issues.

 

 

19dc-partisan-picks-durham-master675Levin goes on to say that his mind changed.  He shares his experience of traveling to Prague where he “noticed almost immediately the concrete foundations and empty pedestals where monuments to communist leaders once stood.” For Levin, the empty pedestals serve as an equally poignant reminder Soviet oppression. Stalin and Lenin are no longer glorified in bronze, but neither is the reminder of their systemic abuse of the Czech people erased. The pedestals are mute but solid.

Perhaps we can learn from the Czech throughout the South. Memphis hosts a number of Confederate monuments, most notably the grave of Forrest and a park around it. I think we would all feel differently if we walked by an empty pedestal instead of a statute of a racist sitting majestically on his horse.

 

Reflections on the New School Year

Twenty years ago, nearly to the day, I packed my mother’s Subaru Forester with everything I would need for my first year at college. My future roommate and I had corresponded all summer and agreed that in addition to clothes, bedding, and school supplies, I would bring the mini-fridge and CD boombox and she would bring the microwave, fishtank, and blacklight. After all, a dorm room just isn’t a dorm room without a black light. So, with a car packed to the gills, my mom backed the car down our gravel drive as my father and brother waved good bye, dogs circling their legs and barking. 

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My mom, me, and my grandmother – 20 years ago

We sped through two lane highways that twisted and turned through treed hills and the iron-packed rocks of the Upper Peninsula, always moving south.When we finally reached Lake Michigan, we fell into blinding sunny beaches where the lake shimmered and the low sandy dunes pushed back against the waves. We crested a steep hill and the Mackinac Bridge stood before us; 500 foot tall ivory columns rising out the water. Cars, trucks, and motorcycles sped across the five mile long span where lakes Michigan and Huron met.

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The Mackinac Bridge

Halfway across the bridge, nearly 200 feet above the water, my mother reached over, squeezed my knee and said, “Say goodbye to the UP, Gator.” Cheekily, I looked over my shoulder, laughed and waved, “Goodbye to the UP Gator!” Of course, now I know what my mom already knew – I would never really return to the backwood and backwards place that was my home. Sure, I would visit. I came home in the summer to swim in clean lakes and walk in the dark woods. I came home for Christmas to get snowed in for days and ski to the store for fresh milk. And years later, I came home to say goodbye to my mother and celebrate her life after she succumbed to cancer. Even then, I never really returned. I was a different person from that 17 year old girl.

So, two years ago, almost to the day, I drove my little Ford Focus, packed to the gills, through Arkansas on my way to my first real job after graduate school. I crested a low hill and saw the impossibly long and wide Mississippi River spanned by the two silvery white arcs Hernando de Soto Bridge. Instead of trees and dunes, the buildings that made Memphis’s skyline rose up from the shores of the river. I sighed with relief because I was nearly to my new home. And, as I crossed the bridge, I could almost hear my mom whisper in my ear, “Say goodbye to the UP, Gator.”

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De Soto Bridge

Next week, we’re going to meet over 300 young people who’ve crossed bridges – both real and figurative to get here. They may struggle with the demands of college. They may be crossing a bridge to a new life with a trailer full of baggage behind them. However, we have the unique privilege to greet them when they arrive and help them make new lives for themselves.

Seeing America, Part 1: What Is Southern?

Two years ago, I decided to move to Memphis. When I told my friends and family, nearly all of whom are from great northern states, they were shocked. They said true and practical things like, “but you hate the heat” and “it’s so far away from home.” However, the also said some extremely biased things like, “they’re all racists down there” and “you’re not going to start carrying a gun.” Of course, as a life-long Yankee, I drove through Illinois and crossed the Mississippi uncertain and maybe even a little afraid.

NOLABVMNevertheless, I’ve learned a lot about “the South” since moving to Memphis. I think one of the most important lessons may be that it’s not the South, but Southern people. To think of everything south of Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio as a unified whole is both unfair and inaccurate. Sure, they may say “ya’ll” but that doesn’t mean every person who lives down here believes and behaves the same.  For example, I was shocked at how different New Orleans is compared to other Southern cities I’ve visited. In NOLA, diversity pushed beyond race and challenged my ideas of what it means to be Southern. The obvious Catholicism made me feel like I was back in Chicago, New York, or Pittsburgh where the Poles, Latinos, and the Irish dominated for decades. Unlike Memphis, NOLA seems cosmopolitan and open.  Urbane not merely urban.

At the same time, NOLA does share the legacy of racism and slavery with Memphis. Walking around the French Quarter with music spilling out of every door, it’s hard to remember that slaves laid the bricks and were sold on the streets. Similarly, people wandering around downtown Memphis and onto Beale street, might miss the Ida B. Wells plague commemorating her work to end lynching throughout the South. The streets of most southern cities are full of these tangible reminders.

And yet, both cities still grapple with the socio-economic inequalities created by slavery. For NOLA, Katrina destroyed neighborhoods, broke families, and drowned people in the deluge. In Memphis, neighborhoods, families, and people are destroyed by gun violence. Both cities seem helpless in the face of this deluge. But, this isn’t unique to the South. Chicago, Baltimore, and St. Louis face similar challenges.

So, what does it mean to be Southern?  I’m still not sure. I know it requires thinking critically about race and poverty, but that’s not unique to this region. At the same time, the history of slavery and civil rights movement may require Southerners to act and speak more purposefully about these issues. As a carpet-bagger, I’m not sure I should lead the charge. But as someone who lives here now, I want to embrace the Southern in us all.