Dear Mrs. Delius,
Many thanks for your letter of September 14th, sent to me personally through the SPO and printed last week in the Sewanee Purple, about some remarks of mine from March 22nd concerning the Kirby-Smith monument in Sewanee. I am grateful to you for the opportunity to explain myself more fully on this matter.
What the Purple recorded me as saying in March is as follows: “I think the University ought to hire an artist to make an installation that would sit in front of it [the monument], and draw attention to it [to answer] the question of what does it memorialize and what does it remember,” he said. “And that doesn’t have to be a rejection—it can be a sort of open question about, ‘What is it that we remember about the Civil War? What does it mean to us?’”
In your letter, you state that the Kirby-Smith monument “neither glorifies the Confederacy nor the War Between the States.” Perhaps that is so, but the words on the plaque on the front of the monument read “General Edmund Kirby-Smith, C.S.A.” The reason that the United Daughters of the Confederacy erected the memorial in 1940 is the same reason the United Daughters of the Confederacy are in touch with me in 2016, and that is because Kirby-Smith was a General in the Confederate Army. Let’s be honest with one another about that fact.
“What is offensive about the memorial?” you ask. I appreciate the question. The asking of difficult questions is the reason that universities exist, after all. I believe that Edmund Kirby-Smith led “a loyal and noble life,” as you say. But as a Confederate general, he also played a prominent role in the war to preserve the institution of slavery. Is there anything offensive about that? To my mind, there certainly is. All of that is history, you might reply. But the question is one we should never cease asking our students to confront. Will the private lives they lead ultimately be at odds with their public actions? How do they imagine history will judge them?
You also ask, “Why should the monument be hidden from public view?” Here I’m afraid you have misunderstood me, as I never called for the monument to be hidden. Instead I think it should be open to view and to question. The installation I envision would not conceal the original memorial, but rather sit on the large lawn in front and draw attention to it. To tell the truth, 99% of the people who live in Sewanee probably could not tell you where this monument is or who is on it. The sad fact of the matter is that the Kirby-Smith monument is already hidden, though it sits in plain sight.
There seems to be a metaphor in that, doesn’t there? There are things we do not see that really deserve a hard look. As I write these words, there are riots in Charlotte. Police are setting off canisters of tear-gas and protesters are chanting, “Black Lives Matter!” Not long ago, similar scenes unfolded in Milwaukee, in Baltimore, and in Ferguson. We can probably expect similar scenes to unfold in the future until we come to terms with the legacy of slavery and racism in our past. We have a lot of soul-searching to do as a nation. The Civil War is clearly a part of the past that we need to look at again.
This past summer, Vice-Chancellor McCardell enjoined all of us in Sewanee to read Between the World and Me by the prominent African-American author, Ta-nehisi Coates. I have taken the liberty of enclosing a copy in my reply to you, as it deals with some of the issues raised in your letter. At one point, Coates is visiting the site of Pickett’s Charge in Gettysburg. As he writes, “Standing there, a century and a half later, I thought of one of Faulkner’s characters famously recalling how this failure tantalized the minds of all ‘Southern’ boys—‘It’s all in the balance, it hasn’t happened yet, it hasn’t even begun….’ All of Faulkner’s Southern boys were white. But I, standing on the farm of a black man who fled with his family to stay free of the South, saw Pickett’s soldiers charging through history, in wild pursuit of their strange birthright—the right to beat, rape, rob, and pillage the black body. That is all of what was ‘in the balance,’ the nostalgic moment’s corrupt and unspeakable core” (p. 102).
This is hard reading, to be sure, and I can well understand why the Vice-Chancellor asked us to do it. At this time of such great public unrest, though, not to engage in hard questions about race would be a signal failure of our institutional purpose. Sewanee is the University of the South, and wrestling with hard matters is what a University must do. Ironic as it may seem, I believe that Edmund Kirby-Smith the educator would agree with me about this.
Let me end by noting that my suggestion about an installation in front of the monument is only that—a suggestion, and not one I have made in any official way to the administration, which is already engaged in very substantial work to ensure that Sewanee becomes a more diverse and inclusive place.
Christopher M. McDonough
Professor of Classics