NOVAK: Don’t hide the ugliness of Confederate history

U.Va. shouldn’t go too far in erasing its oppressive past

George Santayana said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Given that most people are familiar with this sage advice, it is remarkable how often we forget its message. We, as students, are incredibly lucky to attend a university so thoroughly steeped in history, with a legacy reaching back to the founding of our nation. Like any institution that has persevered through the tumultuous and transformative periods in our nation’s history, our legacy undoubtedly carries the blemishes of the past. Chief among these are the scars left by the subjugation of black men and women and then segregation along lines of race and gender. It would be beyond condemnable for anyone to cover up these transgressions, regardless of the motivation.

Before I continue, I think it’s important for me to recognize and disclose my privilege. As a straight white middle class male, I cannot claim to comprehend the experience of attending the University as a member of a minority group. With these socioeconomic biases in mind, I nonetheless want to impart what I see as the danger of whitewashing the complex and indisputably regrettable aspects of our University’s past.

Given that we reside in Virginia, the state once home to the Confederate capital, it’s no surprise that Charlottesville is peppered with monuments commemorating the participants in the rebellion. Consequently, it’s natural that voices have picked up calling for the reevaluation of these monuments. Recently, the calls to remove or relocate various Confederate memorabilia and statues in Charlottesville have garnered considerable momentum. The University is not exempt from controversy either, with the placement of a plaque commemorating Confederate soldiers recently being called into question.

While I do understand, as best I can, the sentiment behind these calls for removal, I would caution that in doing so, we risk purging the University of the more lamentable aspects of its history. I understand how the presence of these monuments can be hurtful and uncomfortable. I too, as much as I can, feel the pain. That discomfort and distress we feel in the presence of these vestiges of our past, however, is the very reason why they must be preserved. They serve as a painful reminder of the oppression and hypocrisy which has so thoroughly permeated the Grounds of the University. If we extirpate or otherwise conceal the darker imperfections of our University’s history, we risk elevating the institution to undeserved heights of glorification. I would suggest that in the current context, rather than revering the darker times of our history, these monuments serve as a tempering reminder that not too long ago, our institutions openly practiced and celebrated oppression.

Although I recognize the desire for safe spaces, the truth is our University and its history should make us uncomfortable. We should be saddened, angered, confused and distraught at the injustices practiced and propagated on these very Grounds. We would be doing ourselves and future generations a grave disservice by insulating ourselves from the real and necessary pain invoked by the University’s past. It would be catastrophically irresponsible to establish conditions under which we could walk the Grounds free from the burdensome truth of this University’s history.

In conclusion, I would like to specifically address the Confederate plaque that currently hangs on the Rotunda. In many ways, the Rotunda is symbolic of the enlightened and academic principles on which this University was founded. We would be remiss, however, to forget that it was constructed in part through the use of enslaved labor, and that the University it represents was long complicit in a system of oppression. As the spiritual center of our University, and the crown jewel of our Grounds, the Rotunda represents the University, and therefore should not have this confederate plaque removed from its exterior. Not because we wish to celebrate the Confederate soldiers that it commemorates — quite the opposite. In today’s context, the plaque is a sobering reminder of a time in which sacrifice in the name of oppression was celebrated by the University administration.

In all the Rotunda’s architectural and aesthetic beauty, the plaque serves as a desecrating blemish, a permanent reminder of not just the conditions of its erection, but of the continuing oppression that it has represented. Like the plaque on the face of the Rotunda, the legacy of oppression is inextricably bound to the University, and because the plaque sits center stage, at the heart of our University, it refuses to let this legacy be ignored or marginalized. Removing the plaque would be akin to absolving the University for installing it in the first place. As the symbol of our University, the Rotunda is undeserving of flawlessness and unconditional admiration. It should instead reflect the troubled history of the institution it represents. Like our country, Commonwealth and University, the Rotunda has a complex and shameful history, and it’s only right that these sins be bared for the world to see. Its exterior should forever be justly marred by the injustice that it, in part, embodies.

Brendan Novak is an Opinion columnist for The Cavalier Daily. He may be reached at b.novak@cavalierdaily.com.

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