And so it begins…
I was involved in a discussion the other night that arose from the news that three statues had been toppled in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. The statues were of Francis Scott Key, Ulysses S. Grant, and Junipero Serra. For what it’s worth, this type of protest action is part of a larger trend across the nation (and across the Pond). Many statues of historical figures who are also viewed as symbols of Black oppression are being toppled.
The focus of the discussion was the statue of Grant, a celebrated general who led the Union army to victory over the confederacy. He was also the last US president to own slaves. Unfortunately for his statue, we’re in an era of lost patience for anything associated with Black oppression. It should come as no surprise that, at some point or another, a group of protesters would lash out accordingly.
Anyway, I was asked my thoughts about their actions. If it wasn’t clear from the title, the questioner was white. At the time I didn’t know much about the situation. However, I did mention that many of the statues being targeted for vandalism and removal across the country were of historic figures who owned slaves or benefited from the slave trade. I went on to say that anything with a whiff of Black oppression was fair game.
The statement was made that perhaps the protesters needed to know their history a bit better, because Grant was actually a more positive figure since he was an abolitionist who allegedly freed the slaves he owned. It was also stated that, in addition to leading the Union army in defeating the confederacy, Grant used the army to help quell klan activities in the South Carolina after the Civil War.
At the time, I didn’t have enough facts to be able to dispute the abolitioist argument OR the use of the army to quell klan activity. An internet search quickly revealed that Grant was never an abolitionist, explicitly stating so. “I never was an abolitionist,” Grant wrote to his friend and patron, Elihu Washburne, in 1863, “not even what could be called anti-slavery…”
And while Grant did use the army to combat klan activities in South Carolina, it was not done to help newly-freed slaves. It was done to stop the klan from those who wouldn’t support their efforts at reigniting the war.
It was at this point in the discussion that I did something that I’ve rarely done. I unflinchingly pulled out the race card, and laid it on the table for the purpose of thwarting a line of reasoning in what I now consider to be an unacceptable discussion.
“Well, I don’t speak for all Black people, but many of us are tired of hearing about how we should be grateful for those who were good to us when we were slaves.”
(Please note that, yes, I did in fact begin to speak for all Black people.)
There was a bit of push-back from my questioner but I continued on the path of calling out the ridiculousness of his ‘gratitude’ argument: that statues of some are worthy of keeping their place in society because they treated slaves better than, presumably, the ‘bad’ slave owners.
I did all of this without raising my voice or becoming agitated. At this point in the post-George Floyd era, I’m not angry or indignant these days. I’m simply resolute.
“What I think many of us are reacting to right now, and what we need to have acknowledged, is a complete repudiation of the white supremacy upon which this country was founded. All of this came from the blood and bodies of Black slaves. [As should always be noted, the decimation of the indigenous population had already begun.]
“What about the fact that there are so many people who owned slaves? Do we remove all of their statues?”
“Frankly, I don’t want to see any of these statues. They all need to be gone.”
The discussion continued but the point was made. And while many may feel that now is the time that we need to have these types of discussions, I refuse to have one that uses this specious line of reasoning; not after Arbery, Taylor, Floyd and all of the others.
There will be no discussion about figures in history who sometimes threw us crumbs in the dirt to ease our suffering while they continued to profit from our brutally-forced participation. Now is not the time to ask for Black forgiveness by pointing out that some slave-owning whites were nice to us. Period.
David Oyelowo, the actor who played Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma, said it best as one of the panelists on the OWN TV special Where Do We Go From Here?:
“What is also not being acknowledged is that baked into the inception, the foundation of America as a country is this white privilege. We were stolen from a continent and brought here and that knee on the neck started there…”
While I agree that the removal of these statues – by protesters or city officials – is part of a much-larger issue about accepting (and trying to move beyond) our societal racism, I’d like to once more offer a crucial bit of advice to those who might object to their removal.
Do not use the argument that someone’s statue might be worthy of saving because they treated their slaves well. Trust me when I say that it won’t be helpful.