Over the past year, we’ve tread the intersection of Kaley Street and South Orange Avenue as it’s become a crossroads swollen with mourners, with meaning. It meets the intersection of Christopher and Seventh. It meets the intersection of Pride and unity, where the Rainbow Flag meets an ongoing aggregation of initials. It meets the intersection of politics and partisanship and guns and economic equity.
Even as we make these intersections into hallowed spaces, each carrying the foot traffic of omnipresent ghosts, we are obliged to recognize that history is a gift from the past to the present – another intersection where the crosswalks are overwhelmed by facts and their pedestrian interpretations. The past lives alongside the present.
To believe that history is set in stone, we might also believe in a flat Earth, a vengeance-riddled-Jesus-less Bible and an un-amended Constitution. Indeed, the setting in stone of history – memorialization – is tantamount to crucifying it. Witness the decades that intervened between the Stonewall riots and the dedication of a national park to memorialize them. We are called to understand the historical events that link them, that fill their meanings: castigation, oppression, resistance, visibility, pride, equality. The challenge, as we stand in the square today in that building’s cool shadow, is to simultaneously feel the full morning sun. Further, we are called to share this space and the history of the now with those for whom the narrative is different.
We are also called to do the difficult work of understanding those for whom memorials, in spite of their originalism, have become engorged with discomfort, even as alt-narratives intersect with events like London terrorist attacks, domestic assassination attempts, elementary school shootings and Jim Crow lynchings. With each passing moment, a stone monument – or a hallowed space like the 9-11 museum or the Pulse building – is touched and transformed by new spirits, intervening events, and new narratives. Likewise, we must negotiate the traffic around icons whose original intent was hateful and for which decades of spite and apologism attempt to recast their meanings into something not so hateful and not so spiteful.
And so it is with flags and monuments (and even words, ultimately re-appropriated, like “Queer” and the “n-word”) that salute a meaning-engorged past. Andrew Jackson was a war hero and populist who fought valiantly to preserve American freedom. He was also a slaveholder and responsible for atrocities against America’s first people. Robert E. Lee was a decent man and military genius whose ideals forced him to fight against a nation he loved—ideals like states’ rights and, yes, the institution of slavery. The Confederate flag is at once a symbol to some of freedom from tyranny, to others of perpetual black oppression, and still others of remembrance for ancestors whose blood was spilled in a losing war for rundown homesteads and meager existences.
Each individual brings the totality of their own experience to memorials; to expect that a single narrative could possibly underwrite a memorial is to misunderstand what memorials are. To assert a single narrative is to disrespect, not only the intersectionality of history, but the souls and ghosts that enliven the history of the now. Further, it casts a long shadow on the trajectory of history’s future. When the value of the individuals for whom a memorial imbued with painful narratives is minimized, when the valid read by a disempowered minority of a horrible legacy is cast aside – when the statue of a Confederate soldier, for instance, is given a place in the public square where all members of a community should feel valued and respected – the “owners” of the dominant narrative have overstepped their bounds.
When a single narrative comes to dominate to the exclusion or to the disempowerment of individuals, the value of the memorial requires revisiting.
We, as an American people, know how to do the right thing: to respect and honor the best among us, while also recognizing and lamenting the imperfection of the best among us, while also respecting and honoring the least empowered individuals among us, while also recognizing and lamenting the imperfection of ourselves in light of how we fail to respect and honor the least empowered among us. This encapsulates the inner and external discourse that should accompany a visit to any memorial.
We know that, at least for now, Pulse is a valid and valuable memorial to all of us. We also know, deep in our collective, pulsing American heart, that memorials to slavery – if slavery is the oppressive narrative celebrated by a single neighbor – must go. We know that, perhaps, even Stonewall and the MLK and the Vietnam and the Rainbow flag may overstay their welcomes in the public square. The road to a better tomorrow runs through the prism of the now, coloring the past with a usable and empowering – sometimes discomfiting – memorial to us all.