Essentially, contextualization doesn’t work with Confederate statues in public spaces because it’s a policy based exclusively on the white experience. It pleases nostalgic fans of cherry-picked, sanitized history and guilty white “liberals” alike.
The former remain satisfied with their symbols standing tall, while the latter seem content with a little paragraph to ease their guilt. “Look how considerate and educational we’re being by placing these plaques; we’re totally not racist anymore,” the thought goes.
Some could argue that contextualization is a step in the right direction, that at least we’re not letting divisive symbols stand unchallenged. But couldn’t it be that contextualization is just a way to legitimize and preserve those same symbols? Isn’t this policy just a pretext to please those who can’t let go of a distorted history?
I see it just as more of the same ole same ole, this time under the bad-faith intellectual backing of those who think that a university that advertises its diversity is as good of a place for Confederate statues, however contextualized, as Civil War museums.
For minorities on campus, contextual plaques are very far from real change. For many in our diverse student body, it’s more about the old saying that a picture is worth a thousand words. In this case, a 20-foot statue is worth more than the much smaller plaque placed submissively at its feet.
Symbols matter, and their meaning is exponentially higher when they’re in the public sphere — a common area where we should come together, not remain divided. Many might feel comforted by contextualization; others have to walk daily under the salute of a soldier who fought to maintain the rights of one group over the bodies of another. A contextual plaque does not even come close to avoiding this.
If the concern is erasing history or eliminating the sense of identity that symbols bring to a community, we should remember other much more unitary monuments that we already have. I would look no further than the statue of James Meredith — someone who broke through divisiveness and whose braveness we should cherish no matter the color of our skin.
And if we really like contextualization, we could even put a bunch of plaques around Meredith’s statue to educate people about history. There’s no need to have a Confederate statue for that.
Sadly, we can already see that contextualization of Confederate symbols is the policy for now. If the cement blocks protecting the statue don’t provide a powerful enough metaphor, the fact that $10,000 from private funds was spent repairing the monument should make it much clearer.
The space where the Confederate statue stands is public — for all of us — and the value of our diversity is priceless. At what point will we choose between expensive divisiveness and rewarding unity?
Francisco Hernandez is a senior international studies major from Valencia, Spain.