Academic journal article Southern Cultures

Memorial Observances

Academic journal article Southern Cultures

Memorial Observances

Article excerpt

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When I was growing up in Lexington, Kentucky, one of the most powerful objects in that small, genteel, racially segregated southern city was the great equestrian figure of John Hunt Morgan at the courthouse square. I didn't know much about the famed Confederate cavalry officer, but from his statue I knew he was important and figured he was probably good.

In time, I saw more and more of the results of southern mythmaking that shaped the environment where I was born and grew up. Well into the 1960s, when I was in college, these included the codified southern history of antebellum glories, Civil War noble sacrifice, evils of Reconstruction, and a racially stratified hierarchy that seemed always to have been in place. At the University of Kentucky, the Kappa Alpha fraternity hosted one of the highlights of the social season: the Old South Ball. The full-bore moonlight-and-magnolia drama began with college boys in Confederate uniforms marching down Main Street and culminated in a grand party enhanced by lots of bourbon whiskey. During these same years, black and white citizens demonstrated for Civil Rights on that same Main Street in Lexington. But because the publisher of the two local newspapers (the Lexington Herald and the Lexington Leader) decided not to publish accounts of these events, this story remained unknown to most Lexingtonians until the twenty-first century. (1)

Only much later did I begin to understand the mythmaking that had gone into creating this particular saga and, just as important, what had been left out of the story, how, and by whom. In time, my curiosity about the South I was born in led me to look more broadly at the process of creating monuments and memories. (2)

LOOKING AT MONUMENTS

Once we start paying attention to monuments, we become increasingly aware of their defining power in civic places and national identity. At one level, simply by noticing what events and people a community or nation has commemorated we can learn something about those aspects of the past. Beyond that, as we examine each monument as a product of its own time, we ponder questions about who did the commemorating, and when and why. We can seek to discern what a monument meant in its own time and perhaps what it means in our own.

Monuments of every type--plaques marking Lewis and Clark's journey, a lifelike bronze figure of Winston Churchill striding along a street in Paris, heroically scaled Polish resistance fighters descending into the Warsaw sewers, and, from the history I actually remember, every commemoration of the Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam War--raise questions about who conceived and erected them, along with simply telling about the subjects they depict. For me, a child of the mid-twentieth century who grew up in the American South, the most compelling monuments are those that illuminate how Americans addressed the memory and legacy of the Civil War and thereby defined the new nation that emerged, the nation in which I grew up.

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There are many different ways to encounter monuments, sometimes by chance and sometimes by plan, sometimes fleetingly and sometimes in depth. Often the most striking experience of a monument can occur unexpectedly, when we chance upon a monument "cold" and try to learn its meaning and story simply from the evidence it presents--as it was, in fact, designed to do. In Chestertown, Maryland, I crossed the street to take a look at a modest little marker in a small civic space and found it one of the most powerful I have ever seen, with the unexpectedness part of its impact. There in that Civil War border state, the marker of 1917 has two sides, both filled with names--the Confederate dead on one side, Union losses on the other. Those long columns of names, in the context of both the Civil War and 1917, and the simple text--"Under the sod, the Blue and the Gray/Waiting Alike the Judgment Day"--made it hard to look at anything else. …

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