We Don’t Need to Cancel George Washington. But We Should Be Honest About Who He Was.

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Those who seem to want to short-circuit the racial reckoning that began with the killing of George Floyd, and continued with the campaign against Confederate statues, have shifted the focus to something new: The handful of incidents in which protesters have objected to historical figures with more complex legacies, such as George Washington and Theodore Roosevelt.

Those were men never associated with the Confederacy, and critics of this year’s uprisings see the movement against them as examples that things have already gone too far. Now, as if to prove them right, others are calling for tearing down European-looking depictions of Jesus.

Clearly, it’s time to pause the debate, deepen and recenter a discussion we’ve never really had. Instead of letting scattered uprisings (or the police) decide which statues should remain and which should go, we should first answer the bigger questions about why they’re there at all, and what we are really remembering.

That sounds obvious, but in fact it quickly leads to questions many Americans would prefer to avoid, such as: If the goal really is to honor and never forget our history, why doesn’t the Washington Monument make it clear that on the day George Washington died, there were more than 300 enslaved Black people still toiling on his estate? And that during his life, our first president had those he enslaved whipped when they didn’t work hard enough, or tried to run to freedom? And that he did this even as a growing number of others around him actively opposed slavery and committed their lives to abolition?

Such questions may sound like blasphemy to many white Americans. But this isn’t an argument about determining whether a former leader was “good” or “bad,” or an attempt to “cancel” George Washington. I’m not suggesting that flawed leaders shouldn’t be honored. Every leader, especially those who lived hundreds of years ago, is flawed. Refusing to acknowledge anything but the bad in our shared historical narrative would make it harder, not easier, to learn from our past. We can’t purge these figures from our history without also purging our memories of what made this country possible and unique. Having said that, it’s also true that what Washington, other founders and 10 of this nation’s first 12 presidents did—enslaving people —wasn’t just a “mistake.” It isn’t akin to having an illicit affair in the White House with an intern, or even having henchmen break into the Watergate office building.

If we are ever to come to an agreement on who should be canceled and who should be remembered with a asterisk denoting his moral failures and complicity in an evil, we have to first acknowledge that slavery is an unequivocal evil. That acknowledgment will give us a starting point for discussing how we should remember individual people. And Americans, on the whole, have not yet done that, which means that our current conversation over statues and monuments dedicated to men like Washington is doomed to failure. This conversation won’t lead to a solution because it begins at a premise we haven’t all agreed on yet.

***

To see how Americans haven’t fully come around to the idea that slavery is an unequivocal evil, one need only look at how we treat two different sets of historical atrocities. On one hand, there’s anti-Semitism and the Holocaust—which most Americans agree is an undeniable sin—and on the other, racism and race-based chattel slavery. The differences in how Americans treat each become clearer when one compares how we’ve treated the legacy of men like Washington and Thomas Jefferson, who essentially used a young Black girl as a sex slave, to men such as Louis Farrakhan and German-American scientist Wernher von Braun.

Farrakhan heads the Nation of Islam, which the Southern Poverty Law Center categorizes as a hate group. He has claimed that Jews were responsible for the Holocaust because they helped Hitler; talked about separating the “good Jews” from “Satanic Jews”; said terrorists with Hezbollah were “freedom fighters”; and that he was sent by God to “end the civilization of the Jews.” He has made so many anti-Semitic and homophobic remarks that Facebook banned him from the website. During the 2008 campaign, Farrakhan’s support for Barack Obama led to the candidate’s denunciation of him.

Farrakhan, like all people, is also more than his worst acts. As much as I don’t like to admit it, Farrakhan was also partly responsible for one of the most important days of my early life, the 1995 Million Man March. I needed that event like I needed oxygen. I was desperate for a reason to believe in the beauty of Black people again.

I had recently graduated from a prestigious, nearly all-white private Southern liberal arts college—one I chose in large part because I was unsure about Black excellence and thought competing against top-level white students would erase that doubt. I would either prove Black students like me were good enough, or that we weren’t. But I left Davidson College with a significant number of psychic scars. That came on the heels of my being too ashamed to mention during my time as a Davidson student that my hero big brother was languishing in a South Carolina prison serving a life sentence for first-degree murder. I was ashamed of having grown up in a home in which my father beat my mother. I wanted none of my white Davidson classmates, or even the Black, Latino, Native American or Asian ones, to know that my youngest brothers had begun getting into serious trouble as well.

All of that made me feel as though Black wasn’t beautiful. In stepped Farrakhan trying to coax a million Black men to the nation’s capital, not to ask white people for anything, but for us to be better men, more responsible fathers, husbands worthy of the love and respect of their wives. We were to atone for our sins, for not keeping our communities strong. That message resonated with me and many other Black people in South Carolina, who chartered buses to D.C. for the march the way so many had when Martin Luther King Jr. held the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom on that same ground 32 years earlier.

I felt I had no choice but to go despite my disdain for Farrakhan. I felt that way about him not knowing the extent of his history, or how his rhetoric would worsen in the quarter-century after the march, but enough to have wished he had no association with the event.

Once there, I saw a Black woman lying on her back on a blanket in the grass. Her eyes were closed. Her legs were bent and crossed at the knees. Her skin glistened in the sunlight. She may have been a decade older than I was. I can’t remember if her arms were resting underneath her head like a pillow, but believe they were. Maybe she was dreaming. Or maybe she was just deeply inhaling the music and the moment. Whatever she was doing, it was obvious she felt safe in a sea of Black men she didn’t know. I don’t know if she had come alone, but it didn’t matter. Every Black man near her was unofficially standing guard. Had anyone dared try to disturb her, to take advantage of her, to disrespect her, they would have had to navigate a phalanx of Black men determined to answer Farrakhan’s call to be better men. No one was going to hurt that beautiful Black woman with those men around.

I had never seen anything like it. I had never been more proud, or moved. Though I knew that was unfortunately not the way Black men always treated Black women, it lifted my spirits. It convinced me that Black could be—and was—beautiful. Since then, anytime thoughts of Black people being ugly or unkind or violent invade my mind, I’ve been able to tap back into that scene to flush those dark thoughts out. I didn’t stay the entire day. Farrakhan himself was my cue to leave. My brother Willie and I left as soon as Farrakhan climbed the stage and began to speak several hours into the event.

***

I wish that one of the most important days of my life wasn’t linked to Louis Farrakhan. It is. I wish I could say he played no role in restoring my faith in Black people. He did. I want to tell you that I’m not conflicted about that truth. I am.

Still, I cannot imagine voting for a man like Farrakhan—knowing his well-documented history of virulent anti-Semitism and homophobia—and then demanding that my Jewish and gay friends and neighbors understand my choice. I’d feel like a fraud, as though I had betrayed them, because I would have. Nor could I imagine ever supporting monuments and statues dedicated to Farrakhan built on public property funded in part by the tax dollars of Jewish and gay Americans.

Farrakhan is someone who has been erased from our collection of men and women who can be considered great, because he is a promoter of homophobia and anti-Semitism. Anti-Semitism in particular has been collectively deemed unacceptable in the United States after the Holocaust, which forced all of us to recognize just how entrenched and insidious it was. In the United States, we have not yet had such a moment with slavery—which leaves us unable to thoughtfully appraise our former leaders, many of whom had some degree of complicity in the institution. What’s more, the kinds of memorials we built in their honor distorted complex truths, conditioning us to ignore the evil the men we revere commit as long as they also do things we love. I can’t help but wonder if that’s one of the reasons tens of millions of Americans still passionately embrace Donald Trump despite all the harm he’s caused.

For those who believe Farrakhan isn’t accomplished enough to be part of this debate and dismiss the positive effect an anti-Semite could have had, what do you say about how we treat von Braun, one of the most important scientists of the 20th century? He, along with others like him, helped the United States win the space race we had been losing to Russia by helping put Neil Armstrong on the moon. It’s not a stretch to say men like von Braun are as responsible for what became the smartphone as much (or maybe more) than Steve Jobs, given that so much of the technology we carry around in our pockets and can’t do without grew out of NASA-inspired research and development.

And yet, we don’t build monuments to him and proudly display them in the public square on the public’s dime. Because we can’t ignore that he was also, before his role at NASA, a top Nazi scientist who used prisoners in concentration camps to build rockets for Hitler’s army.

Both von Braun and Farrakhan promoted an ideology that killed 6 million people and has caused unquantifiable harm throughout history. Our conversation about whether to include them as historical figures of note begins from the premise that anti-Semitism is an unmatched evil. And, from there, we decide the roles these two men played in those prejudices and institutions are too great for us to acknowledge any good in their legacies.

We say George Washington is rightly celebrated despite his prominent role in one of the world’s great evils—and any argument that his legacy should be reevaluated is immediately dismissed. We do that because we don’t like admitting that we’ve benefited not just from the great things he did, but the evil as well. We say despite the good some say Farrakhan accomplished and the technological advancements von Braun helped make possible, Farrakhan and von Braun are evil men who should be revered by no one. We say that it would be immoral to use taxpayer dollars to honor them or to put statues of them in public spaces.

If we drill down into why, it’s this: Because Americans have never viewed race-based chattel slavery as an unequivocal evil. If we did, it would necessarily expose the clay feet of numerous, well-celebrated American heroes and expose the reach of white supremacy even this deep into 21st century America.

We must first grapple with why a majority of Americans will likely never agree to treat slavery and its practitioners the way we treat the Holocaust and those who committed that great evil. Such an accounting would involve, at least, a painful truth and reconciliation process, and possibly reparations. Until we make those amends, we are likely to keep repeating this conversation about monuments. Our long-overdue racial reckoning will always short-circuit before the finish line.

If we finally acknowledge the unambiguous evil that was race-based chattel slavery, it becomes easier to place each man on a scale of his complicity and responsibility—and then decide what to do about their monuments.

It becomes easier to then agree that monuments to Confederate “heroes” should have never been built on public property with taxpayer dollars. They mustn’t stand. Not only were they enslavers and white supremacists, they were traitors and almost ended this democratic experiment at the point of a bayonet.

Washington and Jefferson, who did not die fighting explicitly for a white supremacist state but had a hand in creating one, are more complicated. Their monuments shouldn’t be destroyed, but their myths must be. Not only that, we should never build another statue to men like Washington and Jefferson without prominently featuring their racial hypocrisy and moral cowardice—that is, if the goal is truth rather than deification. We should say plainly that they prioritized their own freedom and humanity while stripping others of theirs and ask ourselves if we suffer from similar blind spots today.

We must stop feeding our children lies about those who came before us and treating slavery as a kind of speed bump on our way to an inevitable racial progress that has never been inevitable and rarely secure no matter the amount of blood spilled to achieve it. We have to start admitting that for all the good men like Washington accomplished, the evil in which they directly participated and benefited from has shaped this country at least as much, maybe more.

The road from that time to George Floyd, whose killing by police was the spark of a different kind of revolution, is long and winding. We have no control over what happened then, but what direction it takes from here is our responsibility.

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