In the context of exploring the Lost Cause mythology of the Civil War earlier this month, I asked, “what did those (Confederate) monuments symbolize to the Black generations who grew up with them?”
I thought I would find an answer following the routine I developed over years in academics: look at PubMed and Google Scholar for data, and search for relevant books on Amazon.
From PubMed, “Your search was processed without automatic term mapping because it retrieved zero results.” On Amazon, “No results for black reactions to civil war monuments in Books.” Finally, Google Scholar got me to Kanter’s “Measurement and Structure of Microaggressive Communications by White People Against Black People.” 1 Kanter et al. concluded that a growing literature supports the concept that the subtle insults now called “behaviors, Thenns” are not innocuous, harmless behaviors. Then I started playing the old links-and-references game.
To summarize, it’s as if no one has wanted to answer this question with objective data. Here’s a representative quote, “Despite the fact that there is a growing literature examining the associations between neighborhood environmental characteristics and depression/depressive symptoms, we know of no published studies (italics mine) that have measured changes in specific features of neighborhood environments and their associations with depressive symptoms2.” I’ve written things like that myself. Translation, “no one has actually measured anything relevant.”
One might reasonably ask, does the constant presence of bronze Confederate generals on horseback fall in the category of “microaggression” or “everyday discrimination?” Dr. Monnica Williams, now the Canada Research Chair in Mental Health Disparities at the University of Ottawa, certainly thinks so. She wrote about her reaction to the Confederate monument in Louisville, Kentucky, “What message might the presence of this monument (in Louisville, KY – the largest Civil War monument in the state) communicate to African Americans like me? The monument was erected to celebrate people who were willing to die for the right to keep a whole race of people permanently enslaved. Such symbols serve as environmental microaggressions, (italics mine) subtle forms of racism, that contribute to the ongoing distress and traumatization of African Americans.”3
Living with everyday discrimination is not good for people. Here are some recent data. “…(E)veryday discrimination influences African American men’s depressive symptoms across the lifecourse. Among young African American men (under the age of 40), everyday but not major discrimination was associated with depressive symptoms…A similar pattern was observed for middle-aged African American men …everyday but not major discrimination was associated with depressive symptoms.”4 The coping strategies these men employ —poor diets, inactivity, and for some, substance abuse — are part of our national public health crisis. If researchers are willing to search out the links.
So, with few data, I turned to the reports of credible observers. University of Dayton historian Ashleigh Lawrence-Sanders wrote, “In his own proposal for a monument to Black Civil War soldiers in his 1887 book, A History of the Negro Troops in the War of the Rebellion, historian and Civil War veteran George Washington Williams argued that “the surest way to teach national history is monumental marble and brass. The Lost Cause was as much about upholding white supremacy as it was about commemorating the white Southern Civil War experience… African Americans linked their safety and continued marginalized status in American society to the Lost Cause and their absence in American Civil War memory.”4
Earlier this year Michael Dickinson, assistant professor at Virginia Commonwealth University wrote, “many white Americans are increasingly aware that their Black counterparts are forced to see public institutions and spaces very differently, whether (those are) the police or statutes to men who died in large part to keep their ancestors in chains. For many African Americans, myself included, these monuments are physical reminders that we do not belong and should not anticipate equity.”5
Are these newly minted ideas, coming forward as protest grows? No. As Norman Leahy of the Washington Post reminded his readers, “John Mitchell Jr., the editor of the Richmond Planet who witnessed and wrote about the placement of the Lee statue in 1890 said, ‘This glorification of States Rights Doctrine — the right of secession and the honoring of men who represented that cause … will ultimately result in the handing down to generations unborn a legacy of treason and blood.’”6
So far, we’ve seen that the story of Confederate memorials is part of the Lost Cause myth that developed after Reconstruction and flourished during the Jim Crow era. We’ve learned that for many Black Americans, these memorials “are physical reminders that we do not belong.” Next, what to do?
- Kanter, J.W., Williams, M.T., Kuczynski, A.M. et al. The Measurement and Structure of Microaggressive Communications by White People Against Black People. Race Soc Probl 12, 323–343 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12552-020-09298-w.
- Mair C, Diez Roux AV, Golden SH, Rapp S, Seeman T, Shea S. Change in neighborhood environments and depressive symptoms in New York City: The Multi-Ethnic Study of Atherosclerosis. Health Place. 2015; 32:93-98. doi: 10.1016/j.healthplace.2015.01.003
- Williams M.T. The Confederate Flag: Heritage or Hate? https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/culturally-speaking/201507/the-confederate-flag-heritage-or-hate. Posted July 6, 2015. Accessed 12/9/2020
- Wheaton FV, Thomas CS, Roman C, Abdou CM. Discrimination and Depressive Symptoms Among African American Men Across the Adult Lifecourse. J Gerontol B Psychol Sci Soc Sci. 2018;73(2):208-218. doi:10.1093/geronb/gbx077
- Dickinson M. Black Realities and White Statues: The Fall of Confederate Monuments. June 18, 2020. Black Perspectives. https://www.aaihs.org/black-realities-and-white-statues-the-fall-of-confederate-monuments/
- Leahy N. Virginia’s Confederate statues betray the commonwealth’s claimed gentility. The Washington Post. June 10, 2020 https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2020/06/10/virginias-confederate-statues-betray-commonwealths-claimed-gentility/