That sounds obvious, but it quickly leads to questions that many Americans would rather avoid, such as: If the goal is really to honor our history and never forget why the Washington Monument doesn’t make that clear on Washington Day, were there more than 300 enslaved blacks who were still working on his estate? And that our first president had flogged those he enslaved during his life when they weren’t working hard enough or trying to run free? And that he did so when a growing number of others around him actively spoke out against slavery and dedicated their lives to abolition?
Such questions may sound like blasphemy to many white Americans. However, this is not an argument as to whether a former leader was “good” or “bad” or an attempt to “cancel” George Washington. I’m not saying that faulty leaders shouldn’t be honored. Every leader, especially those who lived hundreds of years ago, is flawed. Refusing to recognize anything other than the bad in our shared historical narrative would make it more difficult and not easier to learn from our past. We cannot remove these numbers from our history without erasing our memories of what made this country possible and unique. However, it is also true that what Washington, other founders and 10 of the nation’s top 12 presidents did – enslaving people – was not just a “mistake”. It’s not like an illegal affair with an intern in the White House, or even a henchman breaking into the Watergate office building.
If we ever come to an agreement on who should be completely annulled and who should be reminded of a permanent asterisk that identifies their moral mistakes and complicity in an evil, we must first recognize this slavery is a clear evil. This recognition gives us a starting point for discussing how to remember individuals. And by and large, the Americans haven’t done that yet, which means that our current conversation about statues and monuments dedicated to men like Washington is doomed to fail. This conversation does not lead to a solution because it starts with a premise that we have not all agreed on.
To see how the Americans didn’t get around completely To understand that slavery is a clear evil, you just have to look at how we treat two different types of historical atrocities. On the one hand there is anti-Semitism and the Holocaust – which most Americans consider an undeniable sin – and on the other there is racism and racial slavery. The differences in the way Americans interact with one another become clearer when we compare how we inherited the legacy of men like Washington and Thomas Jefferson, who essentially used a young black girl as a sex slave, with men like Louis Farrakhan and German – American scientists have compared Wernher von Braun.
Farrakhan leads the Nation of Islam, which classifies the Southern Poverty Law Center as a hate group. He claimed that Jews were responsible for the Holocaust because they helped Hitler; spoke about the separation of “good Jews” from “satanic Jews”; said Hezbollah terrorists are “freedom fighters”; and that he was sent by God to “end the civilization of the Jews”. He has made so many anti-Semitic and homophobic statements that Facebook has banned him from the website. During the 2008 campaign, Farrakhan’s support for Barack Obama led the candidate to denounce him.
Farrakhan, like all people, is more than its worst deeds. As much as I don’t want to admit it, Farrakhan was partly responsible for one of the most important days of my early life, the 1995 Million Man March. I needed this event like oxygen. I was desperate for a reason to believe in black beauty again.
I had recently graduated from a prestigious, almost entirely white, private liberal arts college in the south – one that I chose largely because I wasn’t sure whether it was excellent black performance, and because I thought that competition against top-class white students would remove this doubt. I would either prove that black students like me are good enough or that we are not. But I left Davidson College with a significant number of mental scars. This happened after I was ashamed to mention during my time as a Davidson student that my big brother, a hero, languished in a South Carolina prison and was serving a life sentence for first degree murder. I was ashamed to grow up in a house where my father beat my mother. I didn’t want any of my white Davidson classmates, or even the black, Latin American, Native American, or Asian classmates, to know that my youngest brothers also had serious problems.
All of this made me feel that black was not beautiful. In the step Farrakhan trying to lure a million black men to the nation’s capital not to ask the whites for anything, but to be better men, more responsible fathers, husbands worthy of the love and respect of their wives . We should atone for our sins because we don’t keep our communities strong. This message resonated with me and many other South Carolina blacks who had chartered buses to Washington, DC for the march, as so many when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. held the March on Washington for Work and Freedom Ground 32 years earlier.
I felt I had no choice but to go for Farrakhan despite my contempt. I felt that he didn’t know how big his story was or how his rhetoric would deteriorate in the quarter century after the march, but enough to wish he had no connection to the event.
There I saw a black woman lying on her back on a blanket in the grass. Her eyes were closed. Her legs were bent at the knees and crossed. Her skin shone in the sunlight. She was maybe a decade older than me. I don’t remember if her arms were like a pillow under her head, but I think it was them. Maybe she was dreaming. Or maybe she just took a deep breath of the music and the moment. Whatever she was doing, it was obvious that she felt safe in a sea of black men she didn’t know. I don’t know if she came alone, but it didn’t matter. Everyone in the vicinity was unofficially on guard. If anyone had dared to bother her, take advantage of her, not respect her, he would have had to navigate through a phalanx of black men who were determined to answer Farrakhan’s call to be better men. Nobody would hurt this beautiful black woman with these men.
I had never seen anything like it. I had never been so proud or moved. Although I knew that black men unfortunately didn’t always treat black women that way, it raised my spirits. It convinced me that black could and was beautiful. Since then, whenever thoughts of black people being ugly, unfriendly, or violent enter my mind, I can use that scene again to flush out those dark thoughts. I didn’t stay all day. Farrakhan itself was my cue to go. My brother Willie and I left as soon as Farrakhan took the stage and started speaking a few hours after the event started.
I wish for one of the most important days in my life was not associated with Louis Farrakhan. It is. I wish I could say he didn’t play a role in restoring my confidence in the blacks. He has. I want to tell you that I am not in conflict with this truth. I am.
Still, I can’t imagine voting for a man like Farrakhan – who knows his well-documented history of virulent anti-Semitism and homophobia – and then asking that my Jewish and gay friends and neighbors understand my choice. I would feel like a cheater, like betraying her because I did. Nor could I imagine ever supporting monuments and statues dedicated to Farrakhan that were built on public property that is partly financed from taxpayers’ money from Jewish and gay Americans.
Farrakhan is someone who has been removed from our collection of men and women who can be considered great for promoting homophobia and anti-Semitism. In particular, anti-Semitism was collectively considered unacceptable in the United States after the Holocaust, which forced us all to see how deeply rooted and insidious it was. We have never had a slavery moment like this in the United States – which makes us incapable of considering our former leaders, many of whom had some degree of complicity in the institution. In addition, the types of monuments we erected in their honor have distorted complex truths and made us ignore the evil that the men we worship do as long as they do things we love. I can’t help but wonder if that’s one of the reasons why tens of millions of Americans still hug Donald Trump passionately despite the damage he’s done.
What do you say about those who believe that Farrakhan hasn’t accomplished enough to be part of this debate and reject the positive effects of an anti-Semite on how we treat one of the top 20 scientists from Braun, Braun?th Century? Together with others like him, he helped the United States win the space race we lost to Russia by taking Neil Armstrong to the moon. It’s not hard to say that men like von Braun are as responsible for what became a smartphone (or maybe even more) than Steve Jobs because of so much of the technology that we carry around in our pockets and that we don’t rely on can do without, grew out of research and development inspired by NASA.
And yet we don’t build any monuments for him and proudly make them available in the public square. Because we can’t ignore the fact that prior to his role at NASA, he was also a leading Nazi scientist who used prisoners in concentration camps to build missiles for Hitler’s army.
Both von Braun and Farrakhan promoted an ideology that killed six million people and did untold damage in history. Our discussion about whether they should be included as historical figures is based on the premise that anti-Semitism is an unsurpassed evil. And from there we decide what role these two men played in these prejudices and institutions that are too big for us to recognize something good in their legacy.
We say Washington is rightly celebrated In spite of his prominent role in one of the world’s great evils – and any argument that his legacy should be reassessed is immediately rejected. We do this because we don’t like to admit that we benefited not only from the great things he did, but also from evil. We say In spite of Farrakhan and von Braun are bad men who should not be worshiped by anyone. We say it would be immoral to use taxpayer money to honor them or place statues of them in public spaces.
When we look at the why, this is: Because the Americans never saw racial slavery as a clear evil. If we did, it would necessarily expose the mud feet of many celebrated American heroes and reveal the reach of white supremacy even so deep in 21st Century America.
We must first address why a majority of Americans are unlikely to ever agree to treat slavery and its practitioners the way we treat the Holocaust and those who have committed this great evil. Such bookkeeping would involve at least a painful process of truth and reconciliation and possibly reparations. Until we make these changes, we will likely keep repeating this monuments conversation. Our long overdue race bill will always short before the finish line.
When we finally recognize the clear evil that was racial slavery, it becomes easier to put every man on a scale of complicity and responsibility – and then decide what to do with his monuments.
It then becomes easier to agree that monuments to Confederate “heroes” should never be erected with public taxpayer money. You mustn’t stand. Not only were they slaves and white supremacists, they were also traitors and almost ended this democratic experiment at the top of a bayonet.
Washington and Jefferson, who did not explicitly die in the struggle for a white supremacist state, but were involved in its creation are more complicated. Their monuments should not be destroyed, but their myths must be. Not only that, we should never build another statue for men like Washington and Jefferson without highlighting their racist hypocrisy and moral cowardice – that is, if the goal is truth rather than deification. We should say clearly that they prioritized their own freedom and humanity while depriving others of them, and ask us if we suffer from similar blind spots today.
We must stop feeding our children’s lies about those who came before us, and treat slavery as a kind of speed boost on the way to an inevitable racist advance that has never been inevitable and rarely secured, no matter how much blood spilled was to achieve this. We have to admit that for all good men like Washington, the evil they directly participated in and benefited from shaped this country at least as much, maybe more.
The road from that time to George Floyd, whose police assassination sparked another kind of revolution, is a long and winding one. We have no control over what happened back then, but which direction it takes from here is our responsibility.