Widdershins with the Confederate Dead
The one fellow with reddish hair and bright blue eyes moved quickly, almost trotting, and at an angle to the crowd. There were nearly a hundred of us there on the square, raising our voices again to have the old Confederate memorial removed. This guy walked wolfishly, as if trying to corral our liberal herd. I watched him, and I watched the police take notice from their perch on the Courthouse steps.
Mr. Hudspeth had the microphone and announced a plan for the hundred of us to make two laps around the courthouse.
A minute later, some kind of disagreement broke out behind me. Red was arguing with my fellow protesters, there under the arch of the memorial. I moved toward them, not knowing what to expect. At protests and marches, one gets a kind of high-alert high as hackles are raised, and the fast-twitch muscle fibers get ready to get busy. The mob mentality can move people to make bad decisions. I was worried something physical was about to go down.
But I listened to what this man and his younger companion were saying. The young guy was trying to tell us that the memorial was history and suggesting that we can’t erase history. Where does it end? He was agitated, emotional, and shaking from it — you could hear it in his voice, see it in his hands. He seemed on edge.
My fellow memorial protesters didn’t seem to be listening to him. They were holding their signs and repeating the same lines about Confederate soldiers committing treason against the Federals. The kid wasn’t getting heard, and neither were the protesters. I butted in to tell them that I could relate to what they were saying.
The protesters looked at me in confusion.
“I have Confederate ancestors, too,” I said. “I just think that they were wrong.” Red told me that his family had lived in Denton County for five generations, and that this memorial was part of his family history. His grandmother had something to do with it. This was personal for him and his son.
I told him my views, why I thought the memorial should be moved, and even got the young guy to laugh. “You know this used to be Spain,” I said. “We could put up a Spanish flag along with the Confederate one!” It broke the tension. Red and his son moved along, and the rest of us started our somber march.
Memorials, monuments, and statues do not equal "history." History is still history without statues. And many Confederate monuments were erected long after the boys in gray bled to death in clay ditches, defending their homes from “Northern aggressors.” Many were erected during Jim Crow as pointed reminders to blacks that whites still ran the show.
We, the people, get to work out collectively who we wish to honor with memorials. It seems clear that we are taking a moment to reassess who our memorialized will be. As we go through a new phase of this process now in the context of Nazis marching on Charlottesville and murdering Heather Heyer, I hope we Dentonites will model our approach on Mr. Hudspeth’s while we still can. After the march, he invited Red, his son, and another counter-protester to stay and talk with him about their views. Mr. Hudspeth is a polite man and a good listener.
It is this talking with and listening to (rather than talking to and shouting at) that will be the real balm for our country, our county, and our square. The slogans should be put away, our chanting should become quieted. It’s time to do the harder work of listening to and talking well with those we think we disagree with. Because whatever we do, if we don’t do it together, it won’t last long. The future of the Confederate memorial itself will testify to that, when it is moved or placed in a wider historical context of the white power that caused it to be put there in the first place.
Obviously, I didn’t catch Red’s name, or his son’s. And that’s a reminder to me for next time to introduce myself, to dig a little deeper, to carry out the conversation for longer if I can. Your neighbors who wish to memorialize their Confederate ancestors are probably not Nazis. Red said, “We’re not racists, we’re Christians. Slavery was evil.” And yet he supports keeping the memorial intact and in place. Fitzgerald wrote that a sign of intelligence is the ability to hold two apparently opposite ideas at the same time “and still retain the ability to function.”
What would happen to Denton’s ability to function if she found a way to simultaneously hold in mind the notions that A) people often have a need to honor their dead ancestors, even when those ancestors fought for the wrong side, and B) people have a right to honor new heroes with new memorials when we realize that the old ones shame us?
Either the memorial will be moved, or many more steps will be taken to “contextualize” it. But as we all keep having that conversation, keep protesting and counter-protesting each other, and keep marching and holding our signs and sigils, we had better practice the art of disagreeing without being disagreeable.
Shouting leads too often to shoving, and much worse.
Red and his family live here, work here, and care about Denton too. Try talking to him sometime. We’re going to need the help of good people we disagree with if the bad guys (i.e., Nazis) show up with weapons.
Header image photographed by Mateo Granados
Header image layout designed by Christopher Rodgers