Silent No More

Silent Sam, the Confederate soldier statue hoisting a musket on the campus of North Carolina’s oldest university, has created quite the ruckus.

After more than a century of standing guard on the lovely Tar Heel campus, framed by blazing azaleas in spring, golden leaves in fall, Sam is down … out … simultaneously loud, and hushed.

The monument’s toppling this week was inevitable. And, in the context of civil disobedience, fairly tame; what one might expect from a genteel southern university: A single arrest, no reportable injuries, police and protesters respecting one another’s space. Sam came down whole, unscathed. Presumably he’ll be preserved in an appropriate setting.

It was the right and righteous outcome to a long and contentious debate. There had been protests, pleas and petitions for decades. Some viewed Sam as a tribute to those who lost their lives in the Civil War, defending state sovereignty and the southern Confederacy. More saw him as a wink, nod and a hood to white supremacy.

As it should, the impulse to heal old hurts trumped homage. Humanity prevailed over stone.

Sam will find a cozy new home in a museum somewhere. He will be visited and revered — by those who choose to do so.

And those who had no choice, students and citizens of all shades and backgrounds, can rest easy knowing that bigotry and disunity no longer occupy a place of honor within their community.

As I watched the midnight images of Sam being trucked out of town, I remembered another late night, long ago from my student days at UNC-CH: Studying at Wilson library, reading Shakespeare, writing a paper in a familiar carrel. And a brown-eyed boy who rides his bike to meet me, charms library security into ignoring the bottle of Liebfraumilch in his backpack, walks me across upper campus. We stop at Silent Sam, settle in, pour cheap wine into plastic cups, lean into starry skies and one another.

The monument was merely backdrop to our unfolding story. We paid no attention to Sam’s heritage. We didn’t consider his allegiance. We didn’t know or care about the backstory. We enjoyed a summer night and spoke of tests and twisted bike chains, friends and futures.

We weren’t uncaring, or even ambivalent to social issues. We engaged in the concerns of our time then — a dirty war in El Salvador, investment by American banks in apartheid-divided South Africa, nuclear proliferation.

Silent Sam and the vestiges of racism he represented didn’t register at the time. The war he memorialized was long over, justice had prevailed, bias and bigotry were the stuff of history books.

During our campus orientation tour, no one had shared Sam’s pedigree.

We didn’t hear the dedication speech delivered by Confederate veteran Julius Carr. We weren’t privy to this horrific excerpt:

“One hundred yards from where we stand, less than ninety days perhaps after my return from Appomattox, I horse whipped a negro wench until her skirts hung in shreds because she had maligned and insulted a Southern lady, and then rushed for protection to these University buildings where was stationed a garrison of 100 Federal soldiers. I performed the pleasing duty in the immediate presence of the entire garrison.”

Or this horrendously, thinly veiled allusion to racial hegemony, from the same speech:

“The present generation… scarcely takes note of what the Confederate soldier meant to the welfare of the Anglo Saxon race during the four years immediately succeeding the war… their courage and steadfastness saved the very life of the Anglo Saxon race in the South.”

Once you hear, though … once you know the history and connotation of such symbols, you cannot be silent. You cannot condone.

Civil War monuments like Silent Sam are part of history, albeit revisionist history. They are symbols. Too often, though, their greatest symbolism is unintended and ugly. They offend. They rub salt in old wounds. They remind us of a past we should strive not to revisit.

They have no place on a campus dedicated to inclusiveness, academic achievement, the exploration of ideas and the pursuit of progress. Particularly a university founded on the principles of Lux, Libertas — light and liberty.

I believe the construct and the taking down of symbols to be equally potent. Think of the collapsing of Saddam Hussein’s statue in Baghdad … the disassembly of the Berlin Wall … the burning of flags … and the U.S. Army’s 1945 implosion of Hitler’s giant marble swastika in Nuremburg, Germany.

Bold, dramatic, gestures that shake us awake.

Disturb our peace and passivity.

Make us take our eyes off the stars and see truth.

Sam is silent forever more. We cannot be.

Stay woke.

Writer who believes in the power of language to change minds, change moods and change the world.

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