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Confederate Statues, Trump, and the Power of Words

“When he was young, he’d learned that words hurt, maimed, scarred. When he got older, he’d learned that words could also comfort, heal. But he’d never forgotten the first lesson. Perhaps that was why he’d chosen a career in finance: numbers. Numbers added up; they did not tear down.” From Black & Ugly

I grew up in an era when our parents told us to remember “sticks and stones make break my bones, but words can never hurt me.”

Having been called faggot more times than I can remember, and once the N-word by an alcoholic white trash neighbor in our otherwise democratic, and progressive East Falls neighborhood, I know from experience our parents were wrong.

As a wordsmith, as a writer, I understand the power of words—I understand that words can strike with the force of a hammer. Words can also heal; they can bring us together. Or, tear us apart.

Statue of Robert E. Lee, Charlottesville, Virginia
Let’s talk about the Charlottesville tragedy and Trump. From this writer’s point of view what was most offensive about Trump’s reaction—Trump’s words—about the Charlottesville tragedy is that he used his words to lay blame on “both sides” and described the proudly racist, and anti-Semitic, white supremacists as “very fine people.” Then he added insult to injury when he tweeted, “Also the beauty that is being taken out of our cities, towns and parks will be greatly missed and never able to be comparably replaced!” A statement I found baffling as I, like most people, I’m sure, find no beauty in racism, or the dream of an all-white America, or the oppression of millions. Is it any wonder Trump is, arguably the most despised president in history?

But back to the removal of those Confederate statues…To those hysterics who are shrieking removing Confederate statues is an attempt to obliterate our country’s history, I offer this: For Steve Bannon and Sean Spicer, Trump was a huge part of their history—indeed, would we even know who they were if not for their attachment to Trump? Yet do you suppose either of them has a framed portrait of Trump hanging on his office walls? A cherished photo of the two of them together tucked away in a wallet?

We must accept and remember the past; we don’t have to honor it.

As for the statues themselves, the historical record is actually pretty clear: The Confederacy was always about white supremacy, and so are the monuments dedicated to it.1 They were created and erected in the early 1900s when states were enacting Jim Crow laws to disenfranchise black Americans. In the middle part of the century, the civil rights movement pushed back against that segregation.2 In short, these statues were erected to intimidate blacks, to remind them of their place (see my earlier post, “Who You Calling Bougie?”). Make no mistake, they were nothing less than the less aggressive equivalent of a noose.

I read Charles Barkley said he doesn’t care about Confederate statues, that he doesn’t know many black people who do. There are, he said, more important things for us to expend our energy on, and he is probably right. But that said, I don’t know that this fight was never really about Confederate statues. It is more, I think, about what they symbolize—a racist president, pandering to white supremacists, neo Nazis and the KKK—in short, the worst among his supporters—and his weak-willed administration and their frightening but farcical attempts to intimidate, and erase People of Color, gays, trans men and women, and return us to an earlier all white, all straight, cis-gendered America. As if such a thing ever existed. Like I said, this administration is a farce, or would be if they didn’t pose such a threat to our country.

Even as arguments are waged on both sides there has been a rush nationwide to remove Confederate statues? Why? Because no one wants to go down in the history books as having once stood on the wrong side of history—that is, on Trump’s side.

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