Monuments to Hate

We do not sit outside of the world in which we live. The current fight over the fate of Confederate monuments in US life is a direct struggle that calls for direct action by us all against racism.

Are symbols of the Old South memorials?
Living museums of interactive racism,
filled with exhibits of monuments to hate.
Whether etched in stone or ingrained in knots,
placards mark the spots the present never forgot.

Historical reenactments of unspeakable acts,
performed again and again to bring the Civil War back,
to unearth shallow graves that cover a hate half asleep,
while descendants of the “Lost Cause” replay war and weep,
raising and praising their tattered “star-crossed” battle flag.

Ole Dixie, the flag that bore Shakespeare’s image of doom,
now marks a tomb of the unfinished work of our nation.
Can we be healed by a hymn? Freed by a declaration?
Made whole by a mouth full of air? “We hold these truths…”
these truths…, to be self-evident, that all, not some, are equal.

Freedom forms at the mouth, the source of the longest river,
from a Negro Spiritual, “Ain’t Gonna Study War No More,”
flowing through Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, and beyond.
The cost of freedom, though immeasurable, is never paid in full,
never blood alone, but something far more precious, even divine.

Ironically, they were right to say, “The South will rise again”
but what they failed to see was that it would not do so as Phoenix,
from the ashes, reminding us of war and devastation, “on all sides.”
No, it rose like Lazarus, come back from the dead, transformed,
returning with a “glorified body” and with deliberate movement.

It was, after all, this movement, a Southern movement,
in the form of the Civil Rights that once moved a people.
Now, once more it moves a nation, though not without pain or pressure,
closer to equality, closer to each other, closer to a more perfect union.
Having risen, and raised us all, time and again, let us never fall to hatred.

Photo of a Confederate monument during a protest
Image description: A crowd of people surround the monument to Robert E. Lee—a bronze statue of a man on a horse on top of a towering stone plinth—re-inscribed by lighting artist Dustin Klein with a haunting image of George Floyd beneath the words “No Justice No Peace”, and the social movement’s declaration, “BLM.”
Caption: Nightfall in Richmond, Virginia, June 8, 2020. A crowd surrounds the monument of Robert E. Lee in an act of civil disobedience to witness the public illumination of injustice and share in the redemptive power of peaceful protest. Dustin Klein

“Monuments to Hate,” is written as a kind of tone poem; not a piece of orchestral music as the term traditionally is applied, but rather a piece of anthropology. Like its classical counterpart, the work represents one movement, here a rhapsody on the theme of racism in the United States and the civil rights movement. The semi-structured form of the work with its episodic stanzas, unapologetically emotional language, and invocation of contrasting moods, is an anthropological response to an underdiagnosed social ill. The apparent inability or outright failure (either willful or inadvertent) to make critical distinctions, recognize complexities, differing positions, or problematic situations that are likely to either give offense or otherwise cause harm to others. These insensitivities, denials, and negations of the realities, struggles, and lives of those around us are more than the “innocent” indifferences of the disengaged; they are a pernicious form of permissiveness that not only induces inequality but also enables injustice.

So how does one reach the disengaged on the question of the modern disposition of Confederate monuments and their improper place in our history, lives, and the future? How does one begin to disrupt the sociocultural processes that produce, maintain, and protect such statuary in US cities and the seemingly incontrovertible truth that the sheer concreteness and verticality of these monuments attempt to impose on and demand of the public? In verse, the poem seeks to address the contradictions of a peculiar sociohistorical condition that I call “monumentality”—conspicuous displays of supremacy that have for too long passively passed as history and heritage.

This condition is, taking Karl Marx’s lead, another kind of “inverted consciousness” of the world (Marx and O’Malley 1970), but this time the opium that desensitizes, that alters not only perceptions and judgments but also conditions, is not religion but organized racism. What is required at this point is an anthropologically self-evident proclamation: human beings created racism, racism did not create human beings. Following the analogy, racism and monumentality are not only exemplifications of the self-consciousness but also the self-esteem of those who have not won or earned these for themselves, but who have instead sought to purchase them at the human cost of subjugating, alienating, or otherwise oppressing others.

Try as we might, Marx reminds us, we do not and cannot sit outside of the world or the society in which we live; we created racism and monuments to hate, both of which are forms of inverted and even perverted consciousness. We can no more recuse ourselves from the processes that create and reproduce them than we can the difficult work required to dismantle and undo the damage they have done. The current fight over the disposition and fate of Confederate monuments in US history, life, and the future is therefore a direct struggle, emblematic of the civil rights movement, requiring direct and sustained action (by each of us) against racism (see Carter 2018). “Moments to Hate,” as a tone poem of turbulent times, is but a single piece of anthropology and ethnography, seeking to contribute to a growing orchestra whose grand composition is not only calling for but directly acting to end racism, removing it from our public squares, private spaces, and every place in between.

T.S. Harvey is associate professor of medical and linguistic anthropology at Vanderbilt University.

Cite as: Harvey, T.S. 2020. “Monuments to Hate.” Anthropology News website, July 2, 2020. DOI: 10.14506/AN.1451

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