Rutgers professors, students and others came together for a panel talk called “After Charlottesville: A Conversation about Justice, Activism and Belonging” at Rutgers Law School in early September,
The talk was a first in a series of interdisciplinary conversations planned around Rutgers University-Newark addressing the theme of justice, activism, and belonging. The talk came after a march in Charlottesville erupted and a 32-year-old woman was killed in August, in response to a plan by local officials to remove a statue of Robert E. Lee.
”What does this mean that these monuments have such a hold over our American psyche,” asked Rutgers Law Professor Elise Boddie, who kicked off the conversation and served as moderator.
Professor James Pope talked about how confederate monuments were largely produced during two periods in American history – during the turn of the 20th century when Jim Crow laws were enforcing racial segregation and during school desegregation in the 1960s.Pope said erecting statues and monuments during those time periods was meant to enforce the white status quo.
Another Rutgers Law Professor, Taja-Nia Henderson, said there were no voter referendums to decide whether public statues commemorating the Confederacy should be erected in public spaces with public funds. She agreed that the statues put up after World War II were done with a specific intent toward African-Americans,“To intimidate and sometimes terrorize.”
Nathan Ford, a student at Rutgers Law, who said he saw symbols of the Confederacy while an undergraduate at Vanderbilt University, said the recent demonstrations and violence were emblematic of a bigger problem, “You can remove all the symbols of this time, but it’s important to know these horrible feelings still exist.”
Controversy over the Civil War is nothing new, said James Goodman a Distinguished Professor in the Department of History, “People have been arguing about the meaning of the Civil War since it’s been over” and for white southerners, those statues represented what it meant to some of them.
The scholars also pointed out that American history needs to be told from more than one point of view, not just from the point of view of people in the majority or who are the most powerful.
“Whose histories ought to be told,” Henderson questioned, a sentiment echoed by Student Government Association President Adebimpe Oluwadunsin, “Whose truth are you telling? Most of the time people tell the history and truth to fit their skin tone and put themselves in a good light.”
Professor Antoinette Ellis-Williams of New Jersey City University said universities need to do more to educate people and lead the discussion on these issues, “Memory is important and who tells the story is important. . .Our discourse has been missing.”
Both Ford and Oluwadunsin said a distinction needs to be made between memorializing a painful part of history and celebrating it.
Though her home country of Nigeria also has a history of slavery, Oluwadunsin said a person is likely to see memorial statues mostly in museums, for educational purposes, “One thing you don’t’ see walking around is statues glorifying people who allowed that to happen.”
Boddie agreed, “Those statues mean something. They’re a symbol of a deeper racial sickness in this country.”
The panelists said it is important to continue the dialogue about these issues.
Goodman added, “We need to take the energy that has formed at this moment and turn it into participatory politics, have a democratic means to decide, get people empowered and voting.”
Boddie said future panel discussions may address implicit bias; the fight against white nationalism; the over-incarceration of communities of color; the connections between racial justice, reproductive rights, and the rights of LGBTQ persons; and the intersection between race, religion, and gender in the "war on terror."