The mostly non-traditional celebrations of the Fourth of July that will be required this year seem fitting, as many of the traditional myths we (white) Americans tell ourselves about the country we celebrate have been recently destabilized: the myth that we have dealt with racism and systemic injustice (or are well on our way to doing so); the myth that we are a country of justice and fairness in our laws and policing; the myth that our healthcare system is the best in the world and can handle any crisis thrown at it; the myth that our economy works in fair ways for everyone – that no matter who you are you have a fair shot at the American Dream; the myth that when a crisis hits, Americans will rise to the occasion, overcome our differences, and make the sacrifices we need to for the sake of our neighbors.

But most of all – and in many ways encompassing all of these – we have witnessed the dismantling of the myth of American exceptionalism: the belief that there is something different and unique about us. Certain things may happen in other countries, but they don’t happen here. “That can’t happen here and it can’t happen to us” (Covid-19). “That doesn’t happen here; you’re mistaken” (police brutality and systemic racism).

The controversy over statues, too, rests upon and reveals such myths.

“Statues are dead people cast in bronze or carved in stone.” 

Katherine Verdery, The Political Lives of Dead Bodies

Statues play a role in national myth-making because they represent the dead, and few function as centrally in the stories communities tell themselves as the dead. Statues render permanent and timeless the cadavers of our honored dead, dead who offer convenient sites for political manipulation, particularly in times of conflict and social change.

The dead are buried and reburied, memorialized with funerals and parades, honored with plaques and monuments, according to the political purposes of the moment.  The reburial of a body or the removal/replacement of statues represents a shift in values and a society’s process of “reordering [its] meaningful universe” (Verdery, 27).

Inevitably, not everyone in a society is ready for or in agreement with that “reordering.” But perhaps just as significantly, there is disagreement over the meaning of these statues and what the dead represent. Or better said, at times there is real disagreement… while at other times there are bad faith arguments that intentionally obscure the significance of our remembered dead.

Such disagreements and bad faith arguments highlight the unique combination dead bodies offer of concreteness and ambiguity (Verdery). On the one hand, a statue’s or a corpse’s presence is felt by us in all its physicality, as a tangible object, and as the representation of an individual person in all of his/her particularity. That body can even help grant material reality to immaterial concepts and ideologies. It lends its weight to those intangibles with which it is associated.

But what, precisely, does the dead body – in flesh or in bronze – communicate? And what ideas or abstractions will it represent? We are tricked by the body’s concreteness into believing the answers to these questions are – or ought to be – obvious. But a dead body is inherently ambiguous: the dead are silent. They do not speak for themselves. Furthermore, the lives they led, like all human lives, are complex and beg to be interpreted. Dead bodies offer powerful symbols thanks to the intersection of these factors:

Words can be put into their mouths . . . or their own actual words can be ambiguated by quoting them out of context. It is thus easier to rewrite history with dead people than with other kinds of symbols that are speechless. . . . Yet because they have a single name and a single body, they present the illusion of having only one significance. (Verdery, 29)

“It is thus easier to rewrite history with dead people than with other kinds of symbols.” The Civil War is one prominent example in U.S. history of such rewriting. Many have pointed out that the claims that Confederate monuments simply commemorate the soldiers who fought that war fall flat when we recognize that most statues went up many decades after the war, in two distinct time periods: the 1900s-1920s and the 1950s-1960s, both eras coinciding with the efforts of African-Americans to secure their rights. When the Silent Sam statue at UNC came down in August 2018, many drew attention to the speech given by Julian Carr in 1913, at the statue’s dedication. In addition to proudly telling the story of how he “horse-whipped a negro wench,” Carr sought to emphasize

what the Confederate soldier meant to the welfare of the Anglo Saxon race during the four years immediately succeeding the war, when the facts are, that their courage and steadfastness saved the very life of the Anglo Saxon race in the South – When “the bottom rail was on top” all over the Southern states, and to-day, as a consequence the purest strain of the Anglo Saxon is to be found in the 13 Southern States – Praise God.

Carr’s speech – with all its lack of subtlety – exposes the myth of the Lost Cause as just that: a myth. But Carr’s speech has another theme I want to highlight here, one that can seem more ambivalent in its purposes: the mourning of the dead by mothers and daughters, by wives and sisters. Carr invokes women and goddesses from the classic stories of history to glorify the grief and sacrifice of Southern women:

It is in harmony with the eternal fitness of things that [North Carolina’s] daughters of to-day should commemorate the heroism of the men and youths whom the mothers and sisters, the wives and sweethearts of half a century ago sent forth to battle for the South. As Niobe wept over her sons slain by Apollo, so the tears of our women were shed over the consummate sacrifice of their loved ones. 

Here Carr invites his listeners to interpret the statue as one simply befitting feminine grief – aided by the fact that it was gifted by the Daughters of the Confederacy. And the grief of Southern women, since the time of the Civil War itself, has been viewed as intrinsically apolitical. At the time of the war, Confederate women defended their right to honor their dead with burial, even as there was no official action to do so. In the words of Mrs. Charles J. Williams of Georgia: “Legislative enactment may not be made to do honor to [Confederate] memories. . . but the veriest radical that ever traced his genealogy back to the deck of the Mayflower, could not refuse us the simple privilege of paying honor to those who died defending the life, honor and happiness of the Southern women” (Faust, This Republic of Suffering, 243). Here the “simple privilege” of female mourning morphs into a female-focused purpose for the war: the so-called defense of the Southern woman.

Such claims to proper – and apolitical – mourning elide the way the treatment of dead bodies had become a proxy for the battling ideologies at work in the war. Historian Drew Gilpin Faust points out the purpose these bodies served as the Confederate army’s defeat came into view. Union graves were desecrated, and those Southerners who dared to care for Union graves risked death themselves. Faust summarizes:

The hundreds of thousands of Union bodies in their midst provided an irresistible target for southern rage as well as a means to express the refusal to accept Confederate defeat. It had proved impossible to overcome a live Union army, but bitter Confederates could still wage war against a dead one (Faust, 224).

And just as a desecrated Union grave was meant to communicate a refusal of the Union cause, so too “ensuring the immortality of the fallen and their memory became a means of perpetuating southern resistance to northern domination” (Faust, 243). Because since the time of Sophocles’ Antigone, we have known that mourning is both private and public, with meanings both religious and political. A burial is not just a burial and a statue is not just “history.”

As the dead bodies of white soldiers served to draw attention away from the brutal treatment of black bodies then, so today we are encouraged to un-see suffering and dying black bodies for the sake of dead white men set in bronze, their bodies rendered timeless and sacred.

Republican congressman Kevin McCarthy complained this week of those who want to remove particular statues: “Not only do they want to erase our past, they want to radically change the way we live today.” This is indeed the case, for history is never just history, and the dead participate in the community of the living just as surely as you and I do. The dead may be speechless, but they live on in the ways we use them to prop up the stories we like to tell ourselves. The stories that will create what Benedict Anderson calls the “imagined community” that constitutes a “nation.”

But bodies can also disrupt these stories and dismantle these myths, if we let them.

In 2020, we are facing a crossroads as a country, confronted by the question: whose bodies will we allow to shape our political imaginations and our understanding of ourselves as Americans? The dead bodies carved in stone of Confederate soldiers? Or the battered bodies of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery? Bodies that obfuscate historical realities? Or bodies that present us with uncomfortable truths? Bodies that reinforce the myth of American exceptionalism? Or bodies that disrupt the status quo?

One thought

  1. While your article is well researched and well chronicled, I don’t agree that the dead bodies of criminals represent my future or the future of this nation.
    I would say the bodies of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd and others who died at the hands of police officers, while unfortunate and tragic, symbolize what is wrong with the way events are perceived in this country (and the world). The misinformation, the manipulation and propaganda can never bring about meaningful change, because the staged events themselves are rooted in lies, not truth.

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