I woke up early Wednesday morning, to NPR just before 6am, like I do most mornings. The news reported Baltimore’s Confederate monuments had been removed overnight. I was sure I was dreaming. Baltimore’s been trying to get rid of those things almost as long as they’ve been here. And even when Baltimore decides to do things, it’s never efficient about it. City bureaucracies aren’t meant to be fast, and ours certainly exceeds expectations in this regard. But it was true–at long last these particular markers of white supremacist intimidation were gone. Huzzah!
I used to have complicated feelings about the monuments. I used to think we should use them as a site to think critically about how public memory is used–in this case to reunify northern and southern White people in our shared mission to disenfranchise Black people. I still think we need to do that, but those monuments weren’t occasioning those conversations, and it was time for them to go. We can’t have honest conversations against that overdetermined backdrop. Good riddance, I say.
So how to celebrate this wondrous day? At first my plan was to bike to the four monuments and check out the scene, take pictures, think about how we remember the Confederacy. But then I decided to do what I hope we do more of with these monuments gone: actually learn some history. Lots of people are concerned we’re losing history by removing these monuments, but they aren’t themselves history. Removing these monuments has gotten more folks talking about and learning about the histories of slavery, white supremacy, and the Civil War than I’ve seen in my lifetime. We’ve got to ride the momentum and keep learning.
So my ride took me down to the Lewis Museum for some history. It was a slow day at the museum, so I had most of the exhibit to myself. I wandered, sat, listened, read. I learned and relearned. I took note of a couple of facts that struck me on this day: slavery came to what would become Maryland on the first boat in 1642, though it took another thirty years to write down that this would be racial slavery. And when Maryland’s constitution abolished slavery on November 1, 1864, it allowed former slaveholders to force African Americans under age 21 to remain in “apprenticeship,” if no other means of support were immediately viable. Children were de facto vagrants, forced to work in the very conditions from which they had allegedly been liberated. Sit with that for a minute.
And then I rode home, stopping to snap a picture of this memorial to police that I pass every time I’m heading north from the east side of the city. It honors the police, itself often a manifestation of white supremacy. It is one of the few monuments in the city featuring an African American figure, but here it is, on a monument honoring a group that has done incredible violence to Black people, and whose funding diverts resources that could be spent differently to actually make inroads against the racial inequities in this city. On this ride it reminded me of the difference between symbolic and material change, and that we need both.