The Past Still Needs Us

“I want to wander. But the past still needs me.
How could I ever leave?”
– Hua Xi, The Past Still Needs Me

A sentiment I have heard more and more in recent years from confused and weary liberals is the bitter sense that Lincoln made a grave mistake in keeping the Union together. Why bother? Why not let the South just go? I was first asked this question just after the 2016 election, but I get it more these days, both from my students and from folks who would be pretty happy creating a United Republic of the East and West Coasts and calling it a day. Let them have kept their slaves. Let them have their guns and their backward lives. Leave us out of it.

It’s a troubling view, one that is born from the sense that the American experiment has failed and that it’s time to save the “good” America and leave the rest behind. It also reflects deeply wishful thinking that America can be separated into a “good” North and a “backward” South, that our country is still capable of slicing neatly in two. Such an easy solution, if that’s what one makes of it, has been a fantasy for a long time, but the history of the South is still markedly different from the rest of the country, and it is worth studying to understand what those differences are and their implications. It was for this reason, among others, that I embarked on a research trip to the South for three weeks earlier this month.

My trip took me to 10 cities across three states: Charleston and Columbia, South Carolina; Fayetteville and then later Durham, Raleigh, and Chapel Hill, North Carolina; Richmond, Charlottesville, Norfolk, and Newport News, Virginia. Aside from the initial flight into Charleston, I traveled by car, bus, and train to get between cities, but I walked as much as I could at each individual destination, because walking is the only way I know how to learn cities, to get a feel for what they prioritize and what they are willing to leave aside. The answers range from bizarre to mundane, but they are always informative.

The ripple effects of 2020 showed in each town and state in a different way. In South Carolina, timid museum exhibits and guides stumbled through what were clearly new outlines of what they were supposed to say, acknowledging the legacy of slavery in the state and its continuing impact, in an earnest but confused kind of way. New memorials have popped up, too. At the University of South Carolina a monument has gone up to the University’s first Black professor, who taught there in the early, optimistic years of Reconstruction; across the street from the State Capitol a small marker honors those who staged sit-ins in the 1950s and 60s. The state itself has made few such provisions: both Columbia and Charleston were filled with Confederate memorials, streets, and historical markers, and when those markers focused on the trials and tribulations of the antebellum and Civil War periods, they were much more inclined to point out the damage done to each city by Union troops than they were to acknowledge the troubles of a little thing like human bondage. Looking at the carefully restored colonial architecture, one gets the strong feeling that Charleston in particular would prefer for history to have stopped in or around the 1790s – if they must look to the future, they will look no further than the end of the nineteenth century, when an earthquake destroyed much of what Sherman had left standing.

Virginia, in contrast, has taken down over 100 Confederate memorials to date, leaving empty squares now overgrown with weeds in cities across the state. The sites themselves are never labelled – either you know something used to stand there or you don’t. The state, however, is keen to talk about the work they are doing, including a new exhibit at the Virginia Museum of History and Culture that addresses monument removal. It’s all very promising until you look at the numbers. Virginia leads the nation in number of monuments taken down, but as the former Confederate capital, they were so far ahead of other states in total number of monuments (404 to Georgia’s 312 and Texas’s 307) that they are still in first place (now 296 to Georgia’s 286 and Texas’s 242). Despite the removal of the statues from its famous Monument Avenue, Richmond is still awash with Confederate memorabilia, from additional statues on the Capitol grounds to its Confederate section within Hollywood cemetery. The history museum itself was originally built as a Confederate memorial as part of a Confederate soldiers’ retirement home, grounds which also include the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. You can still get married in the Confederate Memorial Chapel that abuts the VMFA. References to slavery are more numerous here than in South Carolina – Richmond has a Slave Trail and a statue dedicated to Emancipation, UVA just erected a monument to the slaves who helped build the campus in Charlottesville, and in a cemetery in Norfolk you can find a monument with a Black soldier honoring those who fled slavery to fight for the Union – but you can also attend a historic house tour where the guide will cheerfully refer to an antebellum manor’s hardworking “staff” for an hour without batting an eye.

Most interesting of all is North Carolina, where the modus operandi, like the state’s most famous Confederate memorial (UNC Chapel Hill’s “Silent Sam”) seems to be silence. You will not find Confederate memorials on the Capitol grounds in Raleigh, but you will not find any record of them ever having been there, either. The North Carolina History Museum, for example, located across the street from the Capitol, does a thorough job of addressing slavery in the antebellum period, but it ends its state history exhibit in the early 1960s, at the dawn of the Civil Rights Movement. Silent Sam is gone from Chapel Hill, but Memorial Hall, built to honor the University’s Confederate dead, retains both its name and the memorial plaques in honor of those dead on the inside. At Fort Bragg outside of Fayetteville, renaming was done literally in the dead of night – according to the soldier kind enough to show me around, the base woke up one morning to find that Longstreet Road (long associated with one of the Confederate generals at Gettysburg, though there has been some confusion about this) had been given a new sign that reads “Long Street.” The joke is that no one wanted to confuse Google Maps by adjusting it further, though an Army survey found that the road was called Long Street originally and was “inadvertently” changed around 1918. “Inadvertent” does not accurately capture the fact that even if the renaming was the mistake of a lone geographer, that mistake was made possible by the dozens of other places with Longstreet Roads, but perhaps that is out of the Army’s purview. The Fort itself, named for a particularly inept Confederate general, is up for renaming, but it’s unclear when that decision will come through.

We learn different things from each of these models. One is that slavery is still exceptionally difficult to talk about as a lived experience that left traces on our landscape, and remains instead something that we prefer to confine to museum exhibits, though even in South Carolina I found one or two exceptions. Another is that taking down the statues themselves is easy, but writing a narrative around their prolonged existence is very difficult, difficult enough that it is easier to pretend they were never there in the first place. Most of these statues were up for one hundred years or more. It may take us that long to fully place them in context in the public arena, and we are only at the beginning of that moment now. Nevertheless, it is work we must continue to do.

When I told family and friends that I was planning a research trip to the South for a few weeks this summer, almost everyone offered me the same sentiment: a concern for my safety, born both of stereotypes about the South and the very real fear that accompanies any young woman traveling alone. Some were probably joking; others were certainly not. More than anything else, however, what I encountered the most in the South was kindness: complete strangers who were willing to show me around, offer advice, send me resources, and share their views. It turns out that a whole lot of people have been paying attention to what we do with our monuments and how we talk about history in turbulent times. The specifics of their views differ widely, but taken together they suggest that Americans are still invested in the project of democracy. We have not given ourselves over to despair just yet.

Unquestionably, the kindness I was met with was a reflection of my race. Watching the forests of South and North Carolina move past my window the end of my first week, I wondered whether African Americans felt the flickers of unease that I felt when I saw the forests of Poland on a Jewish heritage tour: like these trees hid more blood and fear than any of us could ever really imagine. It is hard to sit on a train and hold all these competing understandings of a place in your head at once: the theft of indigenous land; the unforgivable crimes of slavery and lynching and police brutality; the legacy of railroads real and metaphorical as roads to freedom; the knowledge that that freedom was never reached by many, whether or not they made it across the Mason-Dixon line; the kindness of the stranger next to you; the sleepy beauty of a hot summer’s day. History is dangerous, so of course the South is dangerous. We do not all feel that danger equally, but we cannot ignore it.

In the coming months, many of these places will become still less safe, as the ramifications of this Friday’s Supreme Court decision hit many groups of vulnerable people. We should remember that this history, too, is rooted in slavery and other centuries-old sins of this country. Across the South, for example, I found statues of Dr. Marion Sims, the so-called “father of gynecology” who made his discoveries by experimenting on enslaved Black women without anesthesia. Columbia’s monument went so far as to make the outrageous claim that he treated “alike empress and slave,” one of the few references to slavery made on the Capitol grounds. Even before Friday’s decision, I spent hours these past few weeks watching America flash by my windows and wondering how a country of which I have still seen so little and whose people I still hardly know could so completely break my heart.

As a coda to my trip, I stopped for Shabbat in Washington before boarding the train that would take me back to New York. At 6 am on Sunday, a few hours before my train departed, I got up early and walked the three miles to the Lincoln Memorial, a site I have long tried to make a point of visiting every time I am in the nation’s capital. I go for two reasons: one, to reread the speeches on its walls, words that I think every American should know, and two, to watch the world stop by, and to remind myself that even now, our history means so much to so many people. Even at 7am, there was a steady stream in and out: a fresh college graduate, a group of British bikers, morning walkers, solitary tourists. Most don’t stay long; many start to read the speeches but drift before they finish. But they come just the same.

The memorial’s central inscription is far shorter than the speeches and a quick read: In this temple, as in the hearts of the people for whom he saved the Union, the memory of Abraham Lincoln is enshrined forever. Who were those people? Do we still number ourselves among them? Are we glad, ultimately, that the Union was saved?

Let them have kept their slaves. Let them have their guns and their backward lives. Leave us out of it.

Lincoln couldn’t accept this attitude not because he was all-in on emancipation from day one (he wasn’t), but because letting the South leave the Union when they didn’t get their way meant, in his view, giving up on democracy entirely. If one side can get up and go when things are not going their way, there is nothing to stop other groups from doing it again when something else goes wrong, and splitting the Union not into two countries, but into dozens of angry, broken shards. We signed a contract when we entered into this nation. That contract demands that we do not leave when things do not go our way. We remain because democracy means ensuring that all members of our country enjoy the rights that we do. It is not enough that I can get an abortion in Minnesota if someone else can’t get one in Mississippi. Working for democracy means demanding that everyone receive the rights promised to us in our country’s founding documents, work that often goes against the wishes of our government and our elected leaders, whether our fellow citizens want those rights or not. The South did not want our laws and the responsibilities that came with them when they seceded, even though at the moment that they seceded, that included protections for slavery. “Saving the union” meant forcing them to accept those responsibilities anyway. It was not a perfect success, then or now. But if we hold out for perfection, democracy will have crumbled in our hands by the time we lift a finger to save it.

Across the South, as in many other places in this nation, I saw ample evidence that people are still working to tell a more honest version of history to their own governments as well as to each other. In some places, that means tearing monuments down; in others, it means putting new monuments up. It means extending a hand to a stranger and offering a precious, vulnerable gift: an honest view about our country not borrowed from a TV pundit or a newspaper, but born of one’s own thoughts. It means refusing despair and retreat. Most of all, it means accepting responsibility for each other, even when there are those who refuse to do the same for us. The road is long, jagged, and anything but straight. But it remains a road worth walking.

2 thoughts on “The Past Still Needs Us”

  1. And let’s not forget that Red states (and Blue) have large numbers of other-minded folks who might not appreciate joining a new country. Partition is not an easy resolution, unless we can resurrect Lord Mountbatten.


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