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5.1.19

From the Editor

On the Vineyard we often have our own way of doing things. So it is that we find ourselves debating, as have other places in America, what to do about a Civil War monument. Only with an Island twist. Take the statue itself, a Union soldier that for many years was painted gray, a cross-dressing that lead many to believe it depicted a rebel. It was not originally erected by proud abolitionists, but through the efforts of a long-serving Confederate veteran, Charles Strahan, who had been wounded fighting for the preservation of slavery and who moved to the Vineyard some twenty years after the war. In 1891 he led the effort to erect the monument in part out of gratitude for the mercy Grant had shown the defeated Army of Northern Virginia and in part, truth be told, to sell subscriptions to his newspaper, the Martha’s Vineyard Herald.

Inscriptions on three sides originally honored only the Union Army, but in 1925 the last surviving Civil War veterans on the Island added a fourth plaque largely in honor of Strahan. “The chasm is closed,” it reads. “In memory of the restored Union this tablet is dedicated by Union veterans of the Civil War and patriotic citizens of Martha’s Vineyard in honor of the Confederate soldiers.”

It’s this fourth plaque, along with another explanatory plaque on the ground, that the Vineyard chapter of the NAACP recently petitioned the town to remove. (In another Island twist, the president of the chapter is Erik Blake, who also happens to be the white, male chief of police for the town. And Clennon King, the filmmaker who has repeatedly brought the monument to the attention of the town and who is African-American, has told the press: “In large part I hold, frankly, the black community [on the Vineyard] responsible for not being much more vigilant about taking care of this.”) The selectmen, in true Island form, voted to punt.

As for white male me, if I had any sense at all I would be using this space to tell you about the joyous return of spring, the thrill of a bluebird in the peach tree and a bluefish on the line. But having potshotted at other Island monuments before, I feel obliged to reiterate my ambivalence about the efficacy of both adding and erasing public art and monuments. Whether on the national mall, the town square, or beside an obscure mill pond, monuments invariably say more about the moment in which they were erected than the people and times they seek to honor. And they are never, ever purely innocent remembrances. (See the subscription promotion above.)

I do know that whether to scrub our public spaces clean of the marks left behind by earlier generations is a healthy conversation to have in all times, regardless of outcomes. The present may not be entirely our fault, but it belongs to us and we are responsible for both its triumphs and its failings, its prides, prejudices, and ongoing insults. If out of sight means out of mind, removal will have failed.

But removal is not, as some would say, erasure. If only history were so easily evaded! We could alter every monument and label every brick ever laid by the enslaved, the underpaid, or the “illegal,” and the gravitational pull that history exerts on the present would still be there. We must own the past if we seek to soar above it.

“Out, damned spot! Out,” said Lady Macbeth as she tried to scrub away blood that was already gone from her skin. But her insanity wasn’t caused by her complicity in her husband’s murderous rise to privilege and power. It was thinking she could wash away the memory of it that drove her mad. 

 

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Note: The above column appeared in the paper version of the magazine. The portion below was added later based on feedback. 

Dear Readers of Martha’s Vineyard Magazine,

It appears to me that my stated “ambivalence” about public monuments has been misunderstood, which is my fault as the author of the editor’s letter above. 

To be crystal clear, if the choice facing Oak Bluffs is strictly binary—leave the statue as it is or remove the offending plaques—I personally believe the plaques should be removed.

As a writer of excessively long books of history, I should have known better than to try and explore even a tiny piece of history, let alone a Civil War monument, in the few hundred words allotted to my editor’s letter in the paper version of the magazine. 

I have, in the course of my work on the history of the Mississippi River, and on Depression Era Texas, studied extensively and written on the horrors of slavery, the sources and outcome of the Civil War, and the unspeakable violence of the Jim Crow South. There is no doubt that Confederacy fought expressly for the purpose of perpetuating slavery, which is why I described Charles Strahan not as a veteran but as one “wounded fighting for the preservation of slavery.” It also leaves no doubt that the period of “closing the chasm” in the early 20th century was part of an attempt to reinvent of the war as some kind of noble “lost cause.” The monuments to rebel leaders in the South from that period were (and still are) a part of the machinery of white supremacy. 

But our understanding of the period is nowhere near complete, and much of the most important recent scholarship on the subject of slavery and the war has focused on the hand-in-glove rise of capitalism in the North with the spread of slavery in the Deep South. Or on the role of New England sailors and merchants in the slave trade. Or on the silent enablers: the Browns, Princetons, Georgetowns and other northern institutions that have had to reassess their role in the “peculiar institution” of slavery. 

It’s not enough to say that the South went to war to perpetuate slavery, as true as that statement is, and leave it there. Because the North, for at least the first years of the war, most certainly did not go to war to end slavery. Indeed, had the Confederacy not fired the first shot on Fort Sumter there was a strong lobby in multiple Union states that was advocating a negotiated settlement that would leave slavery in place.

To me, the unusual conglomeration of historical moments and sentiments memorialized on a single statue is what makes the Oak Bluffs monument unique and powerful and worth considering carefully from all angles. The ongoing story of our shared relationship to the war can be told with part of the artifact in one place and part of it in another. But once the offending plaques are gone you can rest assured that public debate and education surrounding the issue will fade.

That will be a fading that no doubt many hope for, but it may not advance the cause of understanding and overcoming the past. We will have a monument in Oak Bluffs like every other Civil War monument in the old Union, one that tacitly reinforces the smug notion that we New Englanders were the righteous good guys from the very beginning.

So I wish it were not a binary choice between leaving the statue as it is or removing the offending plaques and sending them to the museum for storage and occasional display. 

I wish the entire monument could go to the museum and be reset with appropriate explanation. Or that the offending plaques could be removed from the place of honor on the monument and installed with a suitable explanation, perhaps even mounted upside down on a new display near the site in Oak Bluffs. Where, and this is important, people will see it when they see the original statue. 

All that being said, the history of societies removing past monuments is as old as the history of them putting up new ones. So I don’t buy the arguments from those who want no change to the monument that there is something morally or historically “wrong” with taking the offending plaques down. 

Hence my “ambivalence,” which was an unfortunate choice of words to the degree that it was understandably interpreted as saying I don’t care if the monument gets changed. What I meant was, as I have said in other words at other times about other historical markers on the Island: I have mixed feelings about the history that monuments convey as they are always more about the moment they were put up, or changed, or taken down, than they are about the moment they seek to celebrate.

Again, thanks to all who commented or otherwise gave me feedback on the editor’s letter.

PS

 

Comments (3)

Clennon L. King
Roxbury
Your surname, Schneider, is not an uncommon one to the Jewish community. If your lineage lies there, then I should – in the perfect world – be preaching to the saved, at least where it concerns the removal of the Confederate plaques from public land being maintained with public dollars. Not in a million years would Martha’s Vineyard’s Jewish community tolerate the town of Oak Bluffs hosting a World War II soldier’s statue, saluting those who fought to end the Holocaust, and paying homage, in the same breath, to Nazi soldiers responsible for it. After all, six million died in the Holocaust, a fact that doubtlessly informed Martha’s Vineyard Hebrew Center in coming down on the side of the local NAACP last month, supporting its call for the Oak Bluffs Selectmen to remove the plaques post haste. So, I came away convinced ‘Jews on the Island get it.’ 'They understand, from a moral standpoint, that this is our holocaust.' Then came you. But regardless of your bloodline and heritage, you, like others, want to sit on the sidelines, and wax poetic about what the Civil War was – and wasn’t – all about. And in so doing, you want are questioning whether Black folks have cause to be offended by the plaques at all. To be sure, we do, and we are. Martha’s Vineyard historian Bowdoin Van Riper said it best when he stated in his YouTube lecture, "the South had gone to war in defense of their rights to maintain a society built on slavery and their citizen’s rights to practice murder, rape, kidnapping and terrorism, unmolested by their own governments, free from the touch of law, against what they regarded as an inferior race.” The ‘inferior race’ Van Riper was referring to is my community. Those are my people, the same ones who butter the bread of tourism-dependent Oak Bluffs every July and August to the tune of an estimated $30 million dollars-plus. To be sure, Mr. Schneider, this whole debate adds insult to injury. And your editorial is a clear indication you don't get it. The bottom line is, I’m happy you feel you can be middle-of-the-road about this moral issue, but I can’t afford to. Instead, it boils down to two words that are synonymous with the Jewish community worldwide – “Never again!” My sentiments exactly.
May 2, 2019 - 8:16am
Renee
Boston
What an absolutely unfortunate essay to stumble upon while searching for travel guides for Martha's Vineyard. As a black southerner and military service woman, I thought for sure New England would be a reprieve from the ignorance and racism of the "just cause" notions of Civil War propaganda of the south. And here I learn that even in the "Union," a Yankee state with one a proud heritage of one of the most renown Civil War regiments honors an enemy of America with a statue. What a privilege to be ambivalent about its removal. I've noticed during my tour in Massachusetts that locals often look down on The South as if they are superior. Residents often hold the opinion that since their state was on the winning side of the war they are absolved of the racial subjugation of their fellow countrymen. I cannot find a better example of cognitive dissonance than a union state honoring the army that killed their sons. It also goes to show that the union didn't necessarily enter the war to free the enslaved, but rather restore the union. The island and state should be repulsed but, as we say in the south, doesn't have the good sense to know it should be ashamed.
May 15, 2019 - 3:22pm
Ann Klein
Cambridge
Well said Clennon. Clearly Mr Schneider is ignorant on such an important subject.
May 16, 2019 - 5:15am
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