Historical Amnesia About Slavery Is a Tool of White Supremacy

Historical Amnesia About Slavery Is a Tool of White Supremacy

Historical Amnesia About Slavery Is a Tool of White Supremacy

Where we have (mostly) condemned slavery, we as a country have refused to condemn its defenders.


In 1983, President Ronald Reagan signed into law the observance of Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday as a federal holiday, but I didn’t celebrate it by that name until the year 2000. My family moved to Virginia Beach, Virginia, in 1993, where my father, a lieutenant in the US Navy, was stationed after a three-year deployment to Naples, Italy, which is where I started school. Second grade was my introduction to the American school calendar and the set of holidays that would be welcomed vacations from the classroom. As a seven-year-old, I didn’t think to ask anyone why January 15 marked Lee-Jackson-King Day.

The Commonwealth of Virginia began observing the January 19 birthday of Confederate General Robert E. Lee around 1889, and in 1904 added to this the recognition of General Thomas Jonathan “Stonewall” Jackson’s birthday (January 21). Up until 1983, it was known as Lee-Jackson Day. That year, in accordance with the new federal law, Virginia began observing Martin Luther King Day, only the Virginia legislature voted to combine it with the nearby Lee-Jackson Day, giving us Lee-Jackson-King Day, which I celebrated for seven years of my life.

“Celebrated” may not be the correct term. Alongside my classmates, I passively accepted the idea that these three men should be honored with a holiday and gleefully took the day off from school. We never bothered to ask anyone about Lee or Jackson or their accomplishments, and our teachers were more than happy to leave it all unexplained. Before any of us had any real sense of what the Confederacy was, our holiday calendars told us that the men who fought in defense of it were worthy of celebration, and we went along with it. In fact, for several years I believed that, if they were being honored on the same day as King, Lee and Jackson must have also been somehow involved in the civil-rights movement.

It wasn’t until 2000, when Virginia decided to separate King’s holiday from Lee-Jackson Day, observing the former on the third Monday of January and the latter on the preceding Friday, that I came to know the true legacies of the two slave-owning Confederate generals with whom the King had shared a day with for 16 years. A Washington Post story from 1999 about the “peculiar” holiday sported the headline Three Heroes, One Odd Holiday for Virginians.” Indeed, even after the separation of holidays, they were all treated as such.

The torch bearers who descended upon Charlottesville this past weekend to protest the removal of a statue honoring Lee appear young enough to have attended grade school after the separation, but it’s clear they received the same message. In Lee, they see a hero. Not only do they see a hero, they see themselves. The chant that animated their march was, “You will not replace us.” More than 150 years after the end of Civil War, they choose to identify with those who took up arms in order to maintain holding people in bondage. I wish I found this more surprising.

If in our national memory it is considered heroic both to kill in the defense of slavery and to die attempting to undo slavery’s legacy, then heroism has no meaning. But since we have failed to properly cast the Confederacy as a villain, or even to definitively state that the reason for its secession from the Union was the preservation of slavery, the standards for heroism are more malleable than they perhaps should be. Where we have (mostly) condemned slavery, we have refused to condemn its defenders, choosing to view their actions not as villainous but historical anomalies. We allow them the excuse of being “products of their time,” as if they had no hand in shaping the political and social dynamics of that time. We give them the cover of “states’ rights,” as though that has not always meant further tyranny visited upon black people.

And we protect the modern-day torch wavers by pretending that the culprit is a collective amnesia around American history, when this retelling is a much more deliberate choice. False equivalence is a tool, not an accident of ignorance. It is a choice to focus on Lee’s reputation as a military tactician and not on what that acumen was put to use for, the same as it is a choice to describe his relationship to the institution of slavery as more nebulous than it actually was. It was a choice to erect these statues honoring his life, just as it was a choice to keep them up for so long. What the torch bearers understand as the reason for making these choices, the same reason they chant “you will not replace us,” is that this form of myth-making is the cornerstone of white masculine identity. In order to continue accepting unchecked white-male power, we all must believe, on some level, in the enduring heroism of white-male villains. We must buy into the idea that, even when white men are violently wrong, in reality there are, as the president implied, many sides who are violently wrong. White men’s violence must be viewed as protection of core American values, thus making any response to it a threat to a perceived natural order.

Virginia responded to the threat presented by King’s holiday by making him the equivalent of two Confederate generals. I sometimes wonder how much violence I have accepted in my lifetime as a result of this equivocation, how much authority I have ceded to the notion of white male power as benevolent. It is frightening to think of how colonized your own mind has been, but more frightening to remember that the colonizer is prepared to kill to keep you terrified, and afterward call himself a hero.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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