Opinion » Viewpoint

Liberating Forrest Park

Opponents of the name changes of three downtown parks are the ones in favor of whitewashing history.



There's been a recognition lately of a troubling trend with regards to the South.

For Salon.com, historian Michael Lind writes of a political shift now marginalizing the South and puts this "demographic demise" and its attendant freakout among white Southern conservatives in a historical context.

For The New York Review of Books, Atlanta-born author Garry Wills laments that "[t]he South defeats its own cause when it cannot discriminate between the good and the evil in its past, or pretends that the latter does not linger on into the present."

Perhaps starting it all, journalist George Packer, in The New Yorker, appraises a renewed isolation of the once-"New" South, noting that "[e]very demographic and political trend that helped to re-elect Barack Obama runs counter to the region's self-definition." Packer ends by imploring Southerners to "[take] up the painful task of refashioning an identity that no longer inspires their countrymen."

It's Packer's plea that I can't shake in the face of the latest flap surrounding Memphis' Confederate parks and monuments, because the state legislators in Nashville who forced the Memphis City Council's hand last week, hastening the inevitable renaming of these parks, are heralds of this isolation. As are the Sons of Confederate Veterans who prompted them. As are the neo-Confederates and more mundane complainants who infest the quagmire of online comment threads on the subject.

The parks issue is essentially a localized proxy war in a larger conflict over the past, present, and future of Southern identity. Memphis' Confederate parks and monuments, like most remaining emblems of the Confederacy throughout the South, are essentially political. They were not and are not about remembering the Civil War but were and are symbols of resistance to what came after, namely the long, hard slog toward the equality that the Confederacy was organized to deny. Anyone clinging to long-corrupted memories of the Confederacy in 2013 is not doing so out of a respect for history or fealty to ancestors but out of their own present resistance to changing demographics and other impingements of modernity.

The most common and most eye-rolling complaint about the prospect of renaming these parks or removing these monuments is the contention that to do so is to erase or whitewash history. In fact, that's exactly what the parks and monuments were designed to do.

This suggestion is an affront to the very notion of historical seriousness. As if these inherently political 20th-century monuments to racist defiance are somehow akin to the sacred battlefields of Shiloh or Gettysburg. The monuments are part and parcel with the immediate attempt by the Confederacy and its descendants to rewrite the meaning of the war. And few were so flagrant in this regard as Jefferson Davis, whose three years living in Memphis late in life in no way justify the blight of his visage along Front Street today.

It's difficult to get past something you've been unwilling to go through. But maybe one way to do both is to alter our conception of the war. From a contemporary Southern viewpoint, it's well past time to finally see the Civil War for what it ultimately was — not a war of loss but of liberation. And not just for the third of the Southern population — the descendants of whom have every bit as much a claim to "Southern heritage" as anyone — who were liberated from literal bondage. But for the white South as well, which was liberated — at a terrible cost and with, it turned out, too deliberate speed — from the dehumanizing bonds of a slave society.

The monuments and parks, as presently constituted, do not reveal history — real history. They mask it. Glorifying the Confederacy is not an affront to African-American sensibility. It's an affront to modern sensibility. And reclaiming this history and correcting the record about our past is crucial to our present and future. History belongs to us all. And any answer to the parks issue — and with Forrest Park, at least, there are no easy answers — should be rooted in a true, inclusive reckoning with history.

Those who can't handle this will, in time, be left further behind. But we can't let the South — the "New" South, the modern South, our South — be left behind with them. 

Chris Herrington is the music and film editor of the Flyer.

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