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2021 Essays

Hannah VanderHart

CONFEDERATE MONUMENT REMOVAL

…natural monuments remind us of the presence of the past, our connection to it.
Their ongoing presence suggests continuity, a vision into a future still anchored by a
would-be neutral object of the past. Man-made monuments tell a different story.
Never neutral, they tend to represent the narratives and memories of those citizens
with the political power and money to construct them.

—Natasha Trethewey, Beyond Katrina

It’s 1993, in rural Virginia. I am eight, my brother is six. We are outside playing with a red wagon, gray Confederate caps on our heads. My brother carries a small United States flag. I am wearing a denim skirt and a striped polo, my hair pulled back in a ponytail.

“It’s too bad you’re a girl,” my brother remarks. “You would have made a handsome boy.”

In addition to my gray cap, gold rifles crossed on its front, I have another item from the Gettysburg giftshop: a book of Southern Belles Paper Dolls. I care less about whether the men of the paper doll family are dressed in blue or gray—I have a second book, American Family of the Civil War Era, with men in blue—and more about how young and handsome they are. The women all look about the same. They all have frothy, ballooning ball gowns, the North and the South. The two families portrayed are white, their skin rosy with health. There are no enslaved persons present in the paper doll book.

It is 2020, early spring, and the magnolias are blooming even earlier than usual in North Carolina. So early, that they have been caught in an overnight snow, and by Ash Wednesday the blooms have turned from purple to dead brown. On Monday, two days ago, the Virginia House of Delegates voted 55-44 to approve SB 601, a bill that designates Election Day, the Tuesday after the first Monday in November, as a state holiday, and removes Lee-Jackson Day as a state holiday.1 Last year, the same bill did not pass. The difference this year is that the Democrats have controlled the Virginia senate since November 2019, and a Democratic governor, Ralph Northam, will sign the bill into law.

Lee-Jackson day, a celebration of two Confederate generals and enslavers, has been a holiday for over a hundred years in Virginia. Writes Caleb Stewart for the Associated Press:

Lee-Jackson Day…is observed annually on the Friday preceding the third Monday in
January, which, in effect, makes it the Friday before Martin Luther King Jr. Day. In the
past, before the holiday was moved, it shared the same day as Martin Luther King Jr.
Day. It honors Confederate generals Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson,
both native Virginians…In the Virginia code, both men are noted as “defenders of
causes.

In Virginia, state offices have been historically closed for Lee-Jackson day. Celebrations included “a wreath-laying ceremony, a Civil War themed parade, a gala ball, and in some places, Confederate flags placed on the graves of dead soldiers.” My Southern Belle paper dolls would be in good company. They would be pleased to hear the floor speeches given at the Virginia General Assembly to mark the holiday. This year, notes the press release for SB 601: “Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax stopped presiding over the state Senate as senators honored Gen. Robert E. Lee.” The paper dolls, a well-to-do-plantation family, gasp. The drama of their past waltzes through the Virginia General Assembly.

It is just coincidence, you might think, that celebrations of Lee-Jackson Day fell hard before Martin Luther King Jr. Day, extending the holiday weekend by a day. After all, the day was originally founded, twenty-four years after the Civil War’s end, as a celebration of Robert E. Lee’s and Stonewall Jackson’s birthdays. But in the Commonwealth of Virginia, a coincidence is less likely than an intentional and strategic misplacement of memory. One person can point at the Confederate flag, and say racism and slavery, and another person can point at the same flag, and say heritage and history, and all parties can be equally right in their statements.

August 14, 2017. I have driven from my home in Durham, North Carolina, to my family’s home in Goldvein, Virginia—approximately 25 minutes outside of Fredericksburg, Virginia. This is the first visit home since the 2016 Presidential Elections—the election my mother decided that votes were a fiercely “private matter.” With my six-year-old and three-year-old in their car seats, I drive up I-95, past the John Deere Tractors on their hill outside Fredericksburg, and past a new sight: a giant Confederate Flag on an 80-foot pole, shadowing John Tyler Community College. Trucks blare past my minivan with oversized TRUMP IS KING bumper stickers, and when we stop for gas at a rural station, a man is selling Confederate flags out of the back of his pickup. If this was a dream or a surrealist film, I would find the inundation of imagery a bit much.

I find the sight of the giant, waving interstate flag upsetting—it makes me flush, sends a familiar warmth and sudden ache into my chest, makes my heart beat quickly. I’m still upset when I arrive at my parent’s home, unburden my children from the van. Always blunt, always too much myself, I say something immediately about the flag to my mother. I’m still angry that it hovers and threatens a community college campus from the protection of being erected on “private land” (by the Virginia Flaggers, I will later discover, known for raising funds to erect Confederate flags across the Commonwealth of Virginia). My mother is annoyed I am
upset—

“It’s a sign of heritage,” she protests.

“It’s a sign of hate!” I spit back.

Either way, I see that the flag has different effects on our physical bodies. It is, in fact, triggering to me, while it makes my mother protective and defensive—defensive of a flag she did not birth, against her daughter, whom she did. The massive interstate flag and my mother have taught me more about symbol than any definition from a text on poetry’s form.

Flags begin to fill my poetry—I cannot keep them out. Sometimes I think I am revising a single poem about a Confederate flag, over and over again. Sometimes I think I am writing many poems on the same subject. That the flag and its presence is too much is the point. I have a dream that takes place in a graveyard, where miniature paper U.S. flags fly haphazardly around in the wind. A little boy runs through, his shirt a Confederate flag. Two men are digging a grave. Why is my imagination captive in this way, even in sleep, at rest?

I am in my mother’s house when I read about the Confederate monument, pulled down in Durham, NC. I am in Virginia, state of my birth, home to Richmond, Virginia—the second Capital of the Confederacy after Montgomery, Alabama—when Takiyah Fatima Thompson, a student activist at NC Central, and others pull down the Confederate Soldiers Monument in front of the old Durham County Courthouse. The toppling of the statue follows a Monday protest in solidarity against the white supremacist violence over the weekend in Charlottesville, Virginia. Heather Heyer, 28, is dead. The statue in Durham is copper, and hollow. In the videos of the event, the soldier’s pant legs fold and fall. Takiyah Thompson, 22, and three others are charged with two felonies: “participation in a riot with property damage in excess of $1,500 and inciting other to riot…and two misdemeanors…disorderly conduct by injury to a statue and damage to property.” Takiyah is held on $10,000 bond.

After the 2016 Presidential elections, after Charlottesville, the statue falling raises my hopes. “No Cops, No KKK, No Fascist USA,” the crowd chants as Takiyah climbs the Confederate Soldier’s Monument, loops a yellow ratchet strap around the statue’s neck, and protestors—activists—pull it down. Protestors step forward to spit, kick, and give their middle fingers to the fallen copper man who represented the soldiers from Durham County fighting for the Confederacy. It is never coincidence that a monument to the Confederacy sits outside a courthouse, a church, a school, that the Confederate soldier makes an appearance exactly where our laws are enforced, our children instructed. Courthouse and governmental grounds are the top site for the location of Confederate monuments.

“Durham protestors pulled down the Confederate monument!” I say to the room, having watched the video of the event on my parent’s halting, satellite internet. My mother harumphs in response, the way disgruntled women do in period films. I next remember my mother saying something vague about destroying Southern heritage, Southern legacies and then—somehow—inevitably—the conversation turns back to Robert E. Lee, Gentleman of the South. My mother reminds me that Robert E. Lee was just that, a gentleman, in addition to being a Christian, and at this point, I explode.

“He fucking owned slaves!” I shout across the living room. My mother is now truly upset. We are not an explosive family, on the whole. Yes, my mother occasionally yells, but no one is expected to yell back, least of all use a swear word. She is married to a man from Little Rock who will say “It’s fine” whether he is responding in the affirmative or the negative. The word fucking is probably the most obscene word there is, to my mother—it is beyond a racist, homophobic or sexist slur. But she uses the word back, in a sentence whose incoherence I cannot remember, but whose instinctual anger and bluster I will never forget. My mother and I are fighting about Confederate monument removals, and it is evening. It makes things worse that my children are in the house, that they can hear Grandma and Mom shouting about a dead man or a statue they do not know—if they can even recognize that is what we are doing.

“I am taking the boys up to the bath. It’s bedtime!” I loudly announce, retreating into the protection of mother mode, herding my boys up the creaking, uncarpeted stairs.

In the morning, we both apologize for saying fucking at each other. We do not speak of Robert E. Lee again, as we sit on my mother’s screened-in porch among the cats and cushions, the lit candles. We face the lawn, a wide circle of red oak trees, the pond, ten acres. We’ve gone back to being Southern Belles. I sit on my paper tabs.

The day after the Confederate Soldiers Monument was crumpled outside the old Durham County Courthouse, North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper issued a statement in which he called for the removal of more Confederate monuments:

I don’t pretend to know what it’s like for a person of color to pass by one of these
monuments and consider that those memorialized in stone and metal did not value my
freedom or humanity,” Cooper said. “Unlike an African-American father, I’ll never have
to explain to my daughters why there exists an exalted monument for those who
wished to keep her and her ancestors in chains.2

In the Southern Poverty Law Center’s report Whose Heritage? Public Symbols of the Confederacy, the total number of Confederate symbols are listed by state. The listing of symbols includes monuments and statues, flags, holidays, the names of schools, highways, parks, bridges, counties, cities, lakes, dams, roads, military bases and other public works. Privately funded Confederate paraphernalia—to include those flags erected by the Virginia Flaggers—are not listed. Neither is the man sitting outside his garage, under a large Confederate flag, staring at the oncoming traffic. On the national map provided by the SPLC, the different kinds of symbols are marked by different colored dots. Up in Washington appears a single yellow dot (representing a road), and a single green dot (representing the name of a school or college). In New England, no colored dots. But from Virginia down to Florida, and across to Texas, the region looks like a Funfetti sprinkled donut of Confederate symbols.

Yet the Confederate statues falling give me hope.

Since June 2015, 100 monuments and Confederate symbols have been removed in 22 states and the District of Columbia. Four have been officially removed in North Carolina—to include the stone figure of Robert E. Lee from Duke Chapel, but not to include Durham’s “The Boys Who Wore Gray” monument or the Silent Sam monument on the University of North Carolina’s campus, both of which were toppled by activists and do not qualify as official, state-sanctioned removals. In Virginia, at the time of writing this essay, fifteen monuments have been removed, and while this still leaves 247 active Confederate monuments, Lee-Jackson day is no longer to be celebrated on the General Assembly Floor. This year, for the first time since 1889, the birthdays of Lee and Jackson went unfeted by gala dances or with a littering of Confederate flags on gravestones, and Martin Luther King Jr. Day stands alone as a holiday, commemorating a man and reverend who fought against the work of the Confederacy, which continues long past the conclusion of the American Civil War. While the paper dolls in their ballgowns, symbols of the “romance of the Old South,” may weep paper tears, Virginians were free to vote on the new holiday of Election Day, November 8, 2020—and January 15, 2021, was simply the Friday before Martin Luther King Jr. Day and the inauguration of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris.

In removing Confederate symbols—from our schools, from our holidays, from our streets—we reshape the space of ours days, the meaning of our time. We work towards reparation—or, not even reparation, but the clearing work that must be done before the building can begin: the demolishment of the ruined house. “Love at its best,” wrote Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. “is justice concretized.” In “concretized,” I hear the word concrete, and think of the materials of many Confederate memorials—hard and stonelike, they are supposed to give the impression that they will last. But not even stone lasts.


Hannah VanderHart lives in Durham, NC, and is the author of What Pecan Light (Bull City Press, 2021). More at: hannahvanderhart.com.


1“Va. lawmakers pass bill to end Lee-Jackson Day and make Election Day a holiday,” by Caleb Stewart. Associated Press.

2“Seven arrested in toppling of Confederate statue in North Carolina,” by Amanda Jackson and Ralph Ellis, CNN.