Along I-65, a little bit south of Hogan Road in Nashville, Tennessee, there is a 25-foot-tall statue of Nathan Bedford Forrest, sitting on a rearing horse, shooting behind him, and surrounded by Confederate flags. Forrest was a slave trader, plantation owner, Civil War general, and the first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. The statue was designed and erected by Jack Kershaw, co-founder of the League of the South, lawyer for James Earl Ray, and man who uttered the phrase, “Somebody needs to say a good word for slavery.” The land that it sits on is owned by Bill Dorris, who denies being a racist, but who has described slavery as a form of cradle-to-grave social security for Black people, and, y’know, has a 25-foot-tall statue of Nathan Bedford Forrest on his property.
Imagine, for a moment, being the descendant of the very people who Forrest fought to keep in slavery and that the Klan terrorized. Now imagine having to drive past that monstrosity every day on you commute. Even though Dorris has every right to put an giant ugly statue to anyone he wants on his land. But it would also be pretty terrible to have to look at it every day.
Of course, that isn’t the only statue of Nathan Bedford Forrest in the United States. And it isn’t the only monument memorializing the leaders of the Confederacy or the Klan. A 2019 report by the Southern Poverty Law Center found 780 monuments, 103 public schools, 80 counties and cities, and 10 military bases. And that doesn’t even touch Confederate flags and slogans displayed in people’s yards, on people’s cars and trucks, or at public events.
A simple fact of life for Black people is that, while any particular Black person might or might not be able to avoid any particular monument, it is all but impossible for every Black person to avoid every monument to the people who kept their ancestors in slavery, worked to keep their ancestors in slavery, or terrorized their ancestors after slavery was ended (or, at least, moved out of general use and into the criminal justice system). Those monuments are far too numerous and in places that are far too prominent.
There are, after all, Black soldiers stationed at Fort Hood in Texas, a place named after Confederate General John Bell Hood, who once wrote to General Sherman,
You came into our country with your Army, avowedly for the purpose of subjugating free white men, women, and children, and not only intend to rule over them, but you make negroes your allies, and desire to place over us an inferior race, which we have raised from barbarism to its present position, which is the highest ever attained by that race, in any country in all time.
I’m writing about this because I’ve heard from a few people that if someone is offended by something, they should just avoid it. If you don’t like Cracker Barrel, you don’t have to eat there, but you can still let other people eat there; if you don’t like going to church, you don’t have to attend one, but you can still let other people worship; and if you don’t like monuments to the people who fought a war to keep your ancestors in bondage, you don’t have to look at them.
(I don’t quite understand how that’s supposed to work for military bases. My understanding is that people in the military don’t get much say in where they’re sent. Something something orders. Something something blank check.)
And I understand where that argument comes from. After all, I live in a world where there are no monuments to anyone who oppressed—or every tried to oppress—my ancestors. There are no cities or counties or military installations named after such people. There is no flag that serves as the symbol of those people and their modern counterparts. I cannot imagine what such monuments or place names or flags would be. But if someone invented one and put it up near where I live, I could just avoid it. Because there would only be one of them, and I have a lot of flexibility in where I go and how I get there.
And that is an important point. Part of my privilege as a white man is that I never have to see anything that comes close to the symbolism, for people who look like me, that the Confederacy has for Black people. On the rare occasion that something offends me, it is an annoyance at most, and I can walk away from it. But it’s important to remember that that’s a point of privilege. As I said above, I will never have to attend a school named after, or pass a statue commemorating someone who, or live in a town named for someone who fought to keep my ancestors in slavery or extinguish my people from the face of the earth.
That is the difference between the things that ‘offend’ me and the things that people are fighting to remove. And that is why we should remove the monuments and names that memorialize monsters: because no one should have to see something that honors the people who fought to oppress their people.
And, amazingly, doing that still lets the people who like Cracker Barrel eat there.