By Erica James ’22
We are at a moment of reckoning in this country. Spurred by the murder of George Floyd and countless other people of color at the hands of the police, many are rethinking their biases and viewpoints. Such a cultural movement represents an enormous shift. This moment also has us rethinking our monuments, history, books, and movies in light of what they embody. The United States must face and fix the systemic and institutionalized racism that has been allowed to thrive.
Recently, HBO turned heads as it briefly removed Gone With the Wind from its streaming platform in order to create an introduction that contextualizes and dispels the harmful stereotypes the movie portrays. HBO walked a very thin line and did it well. While we can all agree that media from other times portrays the attitudes and beliefs of those times, it is important that we continue to consume media in a way that is ethical and gives context to the views portrayed and their impact on the historical narrative that we are taught.
Movies such as Gone With the Wind and Song of the South provide inaccurate and romanticized versions of the Civil War. They perpetuate racist myths and cast the Confederacy as a noble yet doomed cause. In our modern American society, media is one of the most powerful tools that can be used to construct narratives. The narratives portrayed in some media perpetuated historical myths and directly influenced the romanticization of the Confederate cause and the construction of many of the 1,503 Confederate monuments that dot the South today.
Monuments are meant to memorialize the people and moments that we are proud of as a country. Naming forts and erecting statues to commemorate those who committed treason against the United States—and saying that it is not a glorification of the Confederacy—is a fallacy. Not only that, but such a fallacy also shows an unwillingness to confront the past actions of our country in a holistic and conciliatory manner.
Protesters in Bristol, England toppled a statue of Edward Colston, a slave trader whose philanthropic gifts were immense and whose name dots Bristol. The statue was dragged off its pedestal and thrown into the very harbor where his ships brought the human cargo that had made Colston wealthy. Across the United States, state and local governments are taking the initiative to remove statues of noted racists as protestors splatter them with paint and attempt to tear them from their pedestals. New York’s American Museum of Natural History recently announced that it had asked the city to remove a statue of Teddy Roosevelt because of its images of colonialism and racial hierarchy. Bubba Wallace, the only full-time Black NASCAR driver, called on NASCAR to ban the flying of the Confederate flag at races. Soon after they granted his request. These recent events show the power this reckoning has to enact tangible change. For the first time in a long time it feels as though those in power are listening to Black Americans and realizing that yes, our emotions are valid, and yes, we are valued members of American society.
It is a stain on how unwilling we are to address our nation’s racist past that it takes the murder of a Black man and the ensuing collective rage of the populace to reevaluate how we view the country’s history of slavery and systemic racism. These all boil down to the one thing that Black people have been asking for centuries: respect and recognition as equal citizens. This current reckoning with our past offers a question crucial to the American identity: how does the country want to be seen in the future? The country cannot call itself a democracy while systematically oppressing Black Americans.
We must tear down monuments that glorify the Confederacy. We must stop romanticizing the Antebellum South in charming plantation tours and bed and breakfasts. We must ethically consume our media with contextualization so that we don’t continually traumatize people of color. Last but not least, we must reframe how we teach and learn about American history; Thomas Jefferson wrote, “all men are created equal” yet owned slaves. Successive presidents engaged in genocide against Native Americans.
Just as we admit that fiction in media requires contextualization, so does our history. The most important message from the current protests is the reassertion that people of color, and Black people, in particular, are, and have always been, an integral part of American society.
Change the Mississippi state flag, tear down Confederate statues, celebrate Indigenous People's Day. It is time America stopped letting the past weigh down a vision of a more equitable and diverse future—one that takes into account the rich diversity of our history. One that truly represents the words of the Constitution: “All [people] are created equal.”