‘My Body Is a Confederate Monument’: Slavery, Rape and Reframing the Past

When the Times published my essay, “You Want a Confederate Monument? My Body Is a Confederate Monument,” I hoped that it would open, or even change, some minds.

I have always known there were and are thoughtful Americans from every corner and every color, but I have been staggered by their willingness to speak out on behalf of and to engage with the ideas of a stranger. What I have seen in the response is that there are Americans who are ready to be on the right side of history and fight for it. They understand that acknowledging the hard truths of history is part of that movement.

To all of you who have written, I thank you. This conversation is part of how we all find our way into the light, into a future that makes sense. It’s been a pleasure to read all of your feedback, and I’m so glad to be able to write back to some of you.

Durham MD, the South: When I was 6, I innocently asked my parents why my African-American classmates were typically on average lighter skinned than my classmates whose parents were immigrants directly from Africa. They didn’t have an answer for me and shrugged. It took until I was a teenager for me to put the pieces together myself in horror.

Caroline Randall Williams: I think that’s such a valuable recollection, for a couple of reasons. First, it is an important reminder of the work we need to do in terms of finding responsible ways to tell children hard truths. Too often Black children are saddled with the burden of navigating classrooms and social gatherings and teams where the stories of their bodies and the bodies of their family members and ancestors are treated like taboo narratives that their classmates/friends/teammates should be sheltered from. I speak from personal experience here — I had mothers of good friends ask me to keep quiet about things I learned about my own legacy from as early as 7 years old.

Second, allow me to commend you for doing the work of putting two and two together on your own. It’s been moving but also a little bewildering to discover the degree to which the article was a revelation to some people!

Karen H, New Orleans: I know a bit about how it feels to have sexual assault change the course of one’s young life. I know the feeling of wondering what life might have been if the abuse had never occurred, if one’s innocence had been preserved into adulthood where one could eventually find normalcy. I spent many years being angry about the innocence that was stolen from me, the way the trajectory of my life was bent off course so that the destination I had been aiming toward was forever lost. But I cannot imagine feeling that the trajectory one’s life should have taken was distorted generations before one’s birth, making it impossible even to imagine what that trajectory might have been, let alone how to reclaim it.

Seeing Black anger in this light helps me feel the weight of it, the impossibility of redress. All we can do is what I eventually did: Address the effects of injury, and help people grow to their own best life, knowing it will never atone, only mitigate. But we need to begin that course.

CRW: Karen, the phrase “impossibility of redress” is just lovely. Your reflection is powerful. I would, however, like to invite a new layer or perhaps a new consideration to add to the insights you’ve provided here. The ability to speak your truth in these comments tells me you’ve got great fortitude. Loss of innocence is tragic even when it happens as part of a natural progression into adulthood. When it happens as a result of an evil act, the sense of tragedy is magnified exponentially.

My hope is that by doing the recovery work that takes us from trauma into transcendence, we become something greater than what we lost. Innocence is a precious thing, but so too is the unassailable strength you get from knowing you have not only survived but recovered from and learned to thrive beyond an act of violence. You did that. The women I come from did that. It’s a hard won but immeasurably valuable virtue.

Kristen Rigney, Beacon, N.Y.: I have tried to explain some of these things to other old white people like myself, but you have put into words what I never could. I’ve never understood why we have statues and monuments and buildings named after traitors to our country, people who were murderers and rapists. Yes, it’s part of our history, but rather than glorify it, we should learn about it so that we don’t keep repeating it.

CRW: I found this comment unexpectedly cheering. It’s a turn for the good when a young Black woman can look through comments about a racially charged article she wrote and find the term “old white people” being used. The fact that the term “old white people” was used by a self-identified “old white [person]” to engage in self reflection and a desire to change hearts and minds, well, that is uplifting to me.

And I wrote the article, at least in part, out of a wish that there was some contained document that could become a useful tool for ambassadors of this movement. I’m glad you felt I put something helpful into words. I hope it can be a meaningful force for change.

Philip G, Raleigh, N.C.: One day, when asked what the Civil War was, we should all say “failed treason in defense of the right to own, murder and rape other people with impunity.”

CRW: I would like to point out your comment as an exceedingly useful example of reframing, rather than rewriting, of history. Also, I applaud its concision. As a responsible historian I do feel compelled to point out that this proposed definition of the Civil War might be a bit skewed by bias, but must also say, on a personal level, that bias in this direction is, frankly, refreshing.

Longfellow Lives, Portland, Maine: Can we now begin to discuss Thomas Jefferson within the context so eloquently put forth here. Jefferson did claim his children with Sally Hemings, not as heirs but as property. Thank you for this compelling perspective.

CRW: The conversation about the slaveholding founding fathers is going to be a difficult one and, I imagine, much longer. I am not ready with organized thoughts on the subject yet. I do value the fact that you read the piece and immediately put it into a bigger-picture historical context, which is broadly valuable and personally humbling.

I would say, however (and my opinion on this is subject to change), that the question of the Confederate monuments in particular can and should be addressed separately from monuments of controversial Americans. Confederates were traitors to America; that part has always seemed straightforward to me. I fear that attaching the case against the monuments of Jefferson to the case against the Confederate monuments might compromise the whole effort; there are people who might be open to considering the latter but would most certainly balk at being asked to consider the former. For now, I say we cover this ground one step at a time.

Louise LeBourgeois, Chicago: This essay made me shake. I, too, am a descendant of white Southern men who raped enslaved women. In my case though, all of my foremothers were white women married to these men who raped. It’s a horrible legacy in countless ways. It was yet another way enslavers/rapists fractured families, separated themselves from their own children and separated siblings from one another. I’ll be thinking of you as I sit with my own shaking body.

CRW: Louise, your commitment to re-examining your family’s legacy with a critical or perhaps even a reproachful eye is powerful. The frankness of your assessment is also powerful. Grappling with personal histories is hard work when we get honest about it. Keep it up.

Jane, Seattle: As a white person, I do apologize for the sins of my ancestors. I remind myself that racism is not interrupted or dismantled by my guilt, by my niceness or by smiling. I do take responsibility for repairing, continuing my process of listening, learning and seeing this world from the perspective of my Black neighbors. I also take responsibility for helping my white friends to wake up, leaning into education and away from policing; and most of all for exercising my citizenship and demanding policy changes from my elected officials. Policies will dismantle the system that is racism. Shalom and justice are my prayers. “I am not here to be right; I am here to learn” is my new mantra.

CRW: This is an essential perspective to cultivate as we all pave a way forward. I am grateful to you, Jane, for articulating it so well, and for modeling the necessary work of simultaneously acknowledging privilege and maintaining a healthy sense of self. That seems to be a speed bump for a lot of people. Keep up your mantra and your message.

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