Vann Newkirk

Monuments and Identity Politics

Air Date: November 25, 2017

Vann Newkirk, correspondent for The Atlantic, talks about culture wars ensnaring the memorialization of American history.


HEFFNER: I’m Alexander Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. The merit of history: Today we debate the value of confederate monuments. What do you do in these precarious situations that so often incite racial, ethical, and societal dispute, confrontation? Well today, joining us is Vann Newkirk correspondent at the Atlantic magazine. We’ll explore the future of American monuments, from Lee to Jefferson, from Washington to Grant, and yes on the $20 bill, from Jackson perhaps to Tubman. And I want to thank Vann for being here today.

NEWKIRK: Thanks for having me.

HEFFNER: You’ve written extensively on the memorialization of American history. And just in the last few months, you’ve been from Los Angeles to Charlottesville to New Orleans, where there’s a different appreciation of what it means to be American, based on the geography, based on the history. How has your reporting informed the way we should look at the controversy surrounding the confederate sites?

NEWKIRK: One of the things that I did in that, in those trips, was something I didn’t see other reporters, other outlets really thinking about. Was how did the population in Charlottesville, the black population there, how’d they think about the statue, how they think about the protests, and the aftermath. And I think when you have a community that has historically been, they had cross burnings in Charlottesville, they’ve had the Klan has always had a massive presence. But nobody really goes and says OK, what do black people there, how, how does the return of this historical demon for them, what does it mean for them? And when I went there I found that people had had long standing objections to the statue, to the Robert E. Lee statue, and now Emancipation Park. That they’d had long standing sort of issues with how the city, how the state memorialized the confederacy. But those concerns hadn’t really been heard. And those concerns were only sort of the surface level of deep complaints about inequality in the city, about sort of the racial justice/social justice issues that aren’t, still aren’t being talked about in Charlottesville, how people in the city were being displaced, outside, by the university, by downtown. And so in the travels, including going to New Orleans and talking to people who had just seen their statues coming down, I think really we should do more to focus on the communities of color, the, the disadvantaged and marginalized communities who are, I think, who have been fighting against these statues for a while. And then we can, sort of have the real conversation about what statues mean, what they memorialize, and how over decades they’ve been used maybe to celebrate, not just the confederacy, but the enduring legacy of the confederacy.

HEFFNER: I think the mayor recognized that there was a longstanding trauma associated with those monuments. Is that what you reported and experienced?

NEWKIRK: Yeah. That is exactly how I would describe it, as a longstanding trauma. But not just, it’s not a wound that hasn’t closed. It’s a wound that keeps getting opened back up, time and time again. So I don’t think people think about voting rights, for example. So voting rights, we think that The Voting Rights Act in 1965, it actually gave people the right to vote and they’ve been voting since. That’s not true, in the south especially, there was a lot, a guerrilla war almost against black folks going to the polls. And so people, they waved confederate flags, they rallied around confederate statues when they were doing that. And those things bring up real memories, tangible things in the minds of black people. You don’t have to be that old for them to bring up those type of memories. So tthere was a massacre of labor workers and socialists in North Carolina in Greensborough in the ‘80s. By the Klan. Like, that’s not ancient history. It’s things that have, have, happened to people who are alive and who are still working and doing things in the community. So it’s an ongoing trauma.

HEFFNER: The critics of a so-called sensitivity, would… appreciate or urge us to appreciate the collective history of the United States. Which was, of unity and at a point dis-unity. And as you point out Vann, longstanding, exacerbated disunity, even as we unified. I found it interesting that folks were, were commenting about Washington and Jefferson and what about Lincoln himself, whose policies could not be fully realized, but to the extent that they were realized, they did not emancipate to the fullest extent, and reconstruction was the continuation of, of economic enslavement that, that marked all American history through LBJ and beyond. So to me, that history is really important. Does that history carry a lot of weight to the folks in these communities?

NEWKIRK: Well I think unwittingly, people who are saying, where does it end, right, where does it end? Does it end with Lincoln, does it end with Washington/Jefferson? They are unwittingly calling for what I think needs to happen, which is… a complication of history. Which is people really thinking about who the heroes of the story are, and realizing that heroes don’t necessarily, they’re not always 100% good the way we like to lionize ’em. So I think what’s important about considering Lincoln. Lincoln was the great emancipator and there are statues of Lincoln as the emancipator of the United States. But Lincoln also had, it took him a while to get to that point right, he wasn’t always for abolition 100%. And so I think, actually studying Lincoln, studying his evolution as a politician is important for understanding today’s society, how it hasn’t quite made the same transition all the way. What really we need to do as a country is to re-examine, constantly re-examine and think about history and the usefulness of history and the use of history. I think what’s really been happening is we’ve had this almost, we’ve created almost a myth of the Civil War, of the period after. We’ve created a myth of the civil rights movement. And those things actually sort of hamper our ability to really consider the role and the legacy of these events happen, the, the, that are happening today. So, you know, we have housing segregation. Why does it exist? Because there was pushback against civil rights movement. Because, since reconstruction, like you said, there’s been a pushback against the inclusion of black people into society. And, there have been black people who have fought against it. There have been people on both sides who have fought against it, and for it. And we should really do our best to consider them as humans. As people who were complicated human beings.

HEFFNER: Do you differentiate between the monuments that were created pre-Reconstruction, even pre-Civil War, honoring slave holding or racist individuals, and those that were constructed purposefully to incite violence? And the Mayor, we mentioned him, Mitch Landrieu, in his speech, and others, have identified the reality that many of these statues were constructed to further intimidate people of color following the Civil War. And so when it comes down to looking at this and asking yourself, which monuments that are erected do you take down? Does the circumstance of their creation impact that decision, should it impact that decision?

NEWKIRK: I think it should. I think it actually should be one of our most important things we think about is why, the why of the statues. And when you look at these statues built during reconstruction, during the 1920s, and then again during the 1960s. They were built almost with the express purpose to celebrate disenfranchisement. So the statue that came down in New Orleans that was a really controversial statue said on the plaque that it was a celebration of white supremacy. And that’s not uncommon. You have statues of people like Nathan Bedford Forrest, who was the founder of the Klan. We should not have statues for the founder of the Klan anywhere in the United States, but there are several. And I think when you really consider, as a whole, the collective of statues in the south, as a person who grew up there, I’m not sure if there are that many visible statues of figures from outside of the confederacy. And most of them came during this time of disenfranchisement. So, that should be our primary consideration with these, is, is the why. And I don’t think people really dig into the why. They say oh, it’s heritage. It’s my heritage. And I’m sympathetic to that argument. Heritage matters. But also, people don’t build statues and they don’t celebrate histories and heritage that they don’t want to. And so,

HEFFNER: It’s about the ownership of that.

NEWKIRK: It’s about the ownership of it.

HEFFNER: Heritage. And in the case of Baltimore,


HEFFNER: The Supreme Court justice, Taney, Roger Taney, who ruled in Dred Scott, which is arguably… the most dehumanizing Supreme Court decision in the history of constitutional law, the mayor, decided in the dead of night to avoid, avert protests, to remove the statue. Good decision?

NEWKIRK: I think it was a good decision. I think… you… you can choose to celebrate a person who enshrined in American law, that certain types of people weren’t actually people, and were property, or you can choose not to. And, the mayor’s an elected official. That’s representative democracy in a way, in other places it’s not so easy though and so there are states where you can’t pull down statues if you don’t have the state’s permission where people—states like Alabama have actually moved very quickly to protect statues against it. And… I think they are on the sort of other side of the pendulum there, where you are blocking popular sovereignty. People say, OK, let these areas… let the people decide if the statue should stay up. And the cities where they have come down, those people decided. And I think states should allow those people in those cities should do as they wish with the statues.

HEFFNER: The descendants of General Lee have actually gone on the record saying we don’t own this history. Take them down. We’re not going to be offended. Do the supporters of the confederate history uniformly sympathize with what would be the modern day politics of the confederacy, or is it my brothers and sisters, my parents, my grandparents, spilled blood and these statues represent the blood that they, and the sacrifice that they made, in what was, between north and south, ultimately salvaged as a union. So my question bluntly, is, do the supporters of the confederate statues do they sympathize with the, the familial heritage or a political heritage?

NEWKIRK: My answer is that it’s complicated. And it’s not always one thing. I don’t think that supporters of statues, to a person, are, would be supporters of the confederacy. And I think lots of them are saying, OK, the confederacy was bad, or slavery was bad, but we should still keep these statues up to remember the bad. And there are situations—I’m not sure if you’re familiar with what happened to Lue, Lieutenant Governor of Virginia Ralph Northam when he came out… in favor of getting rid of confederate statues. The Republican party on Twitter, they said something about him denying his heritage. So it is something where people in the south have this complicated relationship between really considering their heritage and really thinking about whether it’s heritage or whether it’s a celebration of politics. So I don’t think, there are lots of people who genuinely believe, OK, this is heritage, these are my family, these are my family being represented on these statues, and the, maybe their actual name is on the statues. But they may not be considering the fact that the statues weren’t necessarily erected to actually honor their family members. They were erected to honor disenfranchisement. Jim Crow. And maybe their relatives and their ancestors are being used in a way to stand in that perhaps they wouldn’t have agreed with.

HEFFNER: I ask you the question, Vann, because I wonder if the compromise is, you preserve all of the edifices, all the statues, and you annotate the history where necessary, as was the case in New Orleans, with a history that is representing… the contemporary American culture. If we can come to some [LAUGHS] agreement on what that contemporary American culture is, would that be a constructive approach?

NEWKIRK: Yes. But I am not sure that we’ve grasped how people have been trying to do that for decades. So, Vice President Pence said that he’s in favor of putting more statues in place, right? I guess that means putting statues of black people, putting statues of Union Soldiers, putting statues of people who’ve built on progressive policies in the country. But people have been trying to do that for years. NAACP across different states has been trying to put up statues of civil rights leaders, if, I don’t know if people remember, but when there was a push to have Martin Luther King’s birthday celebrated, there was a big pushback. A long, a long…

HEFFNER: Dick Cheney voted against it.

NEWKIRK: Right. There was people in politics today who voted against it, who pushed against it. And it’s even more prominent amongst southern state governments. People who voted not to have MLK day but to have great American’s day in their state and all, or to have Jackson and Lee day, like [stutters] and MLK day, so there was a big argument over putting a statue of Arthur Ashe in Richmond, among the the row of statues of confederate leaders there. And so, we really have to go back and dig through all these times when people tried to do this and that and tried to celebrate contemporary American history. They tried to celebrate what makes us come together and what unifies us.

HEFFNER: How do we reunify?

NEWKIRK: I think you, a good, a good first step would be to go back and listen to those folks. You have people who are putting together movements of different groups of people. I would say NAACP has been trying to do this for years, and they’ve been smeared for doing it for years. You have groups like the Moral Movement in North Carolina, where you have lots of people coming together across not just political spectrum, but race, geographies, and other different groups. And they are saying we are, we are together. We’re building on common politics and a common ethos. And, those groups have been around. They’re not just coming out of nowhere. We just have sort of marginalized them as a country.

HEFFNER: If it were just symbolism we, we might be able to reunify and transcend this difficult patch in our history, which has been described as a civil war in discourse, or politics, but I think you’re pointing out that it is far more than symbolic.

NEWKIRK: Right …

HEFFNER: To my mind, you take the case of the $20 bill now. And we don’t know what the outcome is going to be if Andrew Jackson in some form, or not at all, will be replaced by Harriet Tubman. That plan had been ratified by the prior administration and now there’s some discussion from this treasury secretary of this administration, those kinds of disputes further engulf us in… the culture war of this era, which is not reproduct… it’s not simply reproductive rights, abortion, death penalty, capital punishment. It is something… more injurious to our souls. Why can’t we say we keep half the bills Jackson and we keep half the bills Tubman? Because that would not satisfy the activist.

NEWKIRK: Would that satisfy anyone? I think…

HEFFNER: [LAUGHS] I can’t say Vann that it would satisfy me.


HEFFNER: I would have to give it much more attention. But where can we find the common ground if we can’t accept that yes, Jackson was a President. He wasn’t, he was imperfect and immoral on some measure. Harriet Tubman on the other hand, people don’t, can’t look at her from that lens of immorality and the, it’s, it’s confounding, because there is a qualitative difference between these two individuals. One can potentially be viewed more as a heroine or heroic wholly than the other. But does that mean we erase Jackson?

NEWKIRK: Well, my counter question, and it’s rhetorical, is… let’s go back and look at who was on the bills in the United States before it was United States? We had, you know, our coins were minted with, with pictures of the King. And did we say when we replaced with coinage with pictures of King George with paper notes with faces of our founding fathers on them, did we say where are we erasing history? We knew we were erasing history. And it was purposeful. And, what happens with history is, history’s not an edifice that we build and we can’t touch anything in the walls. History is a tool for creating, just like you’re saying, our collective ethos. It’s what we, it’s what we emphasize, in order to build the common now Americanness. And so when we’re talking about erasing history, yeah, some things do get erased. Some things do get marginalized. Some things do get reconsidered. There was a point in time when Andrew Jackson was considered to be unambiguously a hero. There was a time when the relocation of Native Americans under his watch was considered to be something good, where we thought about the trail of tears in terms of cowboys and Indians movies, where people wanted to be the cowboys right? That was not controversial for most Americans until very recently in, in American history. When you think about history, it is, really, it’s not a… it’s not an, a dead thing. It’s not a thing where you just compile. It’s not a timeline of events where you compile things over years and years and years. It is really, you curate your history in the way that you think best defines what it means to be an American. And so, what we, we are at the crossroads now where people really are saying OK, these confederate statues, they were erected as ways to build a history that celebrated Jim Crow, that celebrated the confederacy. And now there’s finally enough momentum and inertia on the other side, for people who’ve been fighting for decades to say no, we disagree. That’s not what makes America, America. And now I think we’re really in a place where we can sort of… as a people and, it’s not gonna be an easy, it may not even be a bloodless process, but it is a, it’s an important process. And it, I think it’s as important as our decision to create a new nation where we didn’t use pictures of King George on our coins anymore. It’s very important for us to consider, reconsider, to think about who has a voice, to maybe get rid of the statues and replace them with pictures of, with statues of people who we think actually represent America as it is today. And, and that’s an ongoing process. History is a process and we’re in the middle of it right now.

HEFFNER: Well said. My contention would be, to play devil’s advocate, even though I agree with virtually everything you said, in terms of history being a process, we were not reborn after the Civil War. We were not reconstituted. Informally or formally, we were not renamed to have a juster cause. And therefore Andrew Jackson, and maybe if, even if we had be renamed, Jackson would hang in the oval office today, under a curtain, a current philosophy or administration, but… to me, that’s the difference between King George and Jackson, in so far as… we are still perfecting that Union and Jackson can resemble the betterment or perfection of that Union to still, apparently a significant portion of the electorate. So to go back to that question, now that I’ve thought about it a bit more here with you… I would say speculatively, prematurely, that I don’t think if Steve Mnuchin, Treasury Aecretary, decided we’re gonna go half and half… I don’t think that would be a bad outcome. Versus, versus eliminating Tubman completely, which is a possibility.

NEWKIRK: Well I think that’s probably better than eliminating Tubman completely. It’s all in the execution to me, because I do think we should keep symbols in their proper place in terms of importance. There are other important things going on. I don’t think we should have a whole culture war over who’s on the 20. But, and, if that’s the compromise that needs to be the compromise, it’s what needs to be done. The, if it’s the most expedient way to get this thing done and to actually reconsider Jackson’s role and to highlight Tubman, go for it.

HEFFNER: But it, it is that symbolism, Vann, that I think… and tell me if I’m wrong, animates the identity politics that bolstered both campaigns in 2016, and that in the upcoming 2018 congressional contest, I don’t think that will be absent.

NEWKIRK: I think you’re right… and it’s interesting thinking about Jackson and Tubman as the sort of opposing avatars here.


NEWKIRK: Of politics here, and you’re right, there are going to be lots of people, if you get rid of Jackson, who have expressed displeasure with that move. Now you could say the role of a politician is to make those folks happy. It’s to not make them unhappy. It’s to make as many people happy as possible. And I think there you’re compromised, although I’m not sure it would make anybody happy still.

HEFFNER: Was it not the symbolism of President Obama’s election that really did galvanize a cultural shift and move towards a modern liberalism that is now being challenged in some way?

NEWKIRK: Yes. I think we’ll look back in history books and see Obama’s election and presidency as a turning point. It’s up to Americans now I think, to decide which way that turning point will face because we’ve seen in history, after the Civil Rights movement, we’ve seen after Reconstruction, there’s always been backlashes, against politics moving a certain way. And again, it’s up to Americans to decide which way the backlash, when everything settles, which way it goes.

HEFFNER: Vann, this has been a riveting conversation. I hope you enjoyed it. I did too. And I hope those listeners and viewers out there got something out of it.

NEWKIRK: Thanks.

HEFFNER: Thank you. And thanks to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time for a thoughtful, philosophical excursion into the world of ideas. Until then, keep an open mind. Please visit The Open Mind website at to view this program online or to access over 1,500 other interviews. And do check us out on Twitter and Facebook @OpenMindTV for updates on future programming.