Sometimes Science-Fiction has the ability to put reality into perspective. At the moment, I’m thinking of two episodes of Star Trek Voyager: “Memorial” and “Remember”.
In “Remember”, B’Elanna Torres has these strange memories – of a forbidden love that sweeps her into a world in the midst of genocide. The victors erased all evidence of their guilt, but kept around a few memorials as an object lesson: “This is where the Regressives used to live, but they were stubborn and they didn’t like our technology, so we moved them to another world where they could live in peace. It’s a reminder to not be stubborn or backwards.” Voyager might not be able to make the perpetrators pay for their crimes, but at least they can uphold their principles not to support their actions or benefit from their evil. B’Elanna allows those memories to be shared to a young generation who were lied to about their history.
In “Memorial”, the entire crew begins to experiences flashbacks of a battle, the images are disjointed and out of order. They investigate how they could have been caught up in a war against their knowledge. Eventually they discover a memorial broadcasting those events is in disrepair and the battle they remembered had happened centuries ago. They question whether or not they should repair the memorial. Ultimately, they decide to restore it. The words carved on that monument say this: “Words alone cannot convey the suffering. Words alone can not prevent what happened here from happening again. Beyond words lies experience; beyond experience lies truth. Make this truth your own.”
I can’t say that I’ve visited many memorials in all my years. I grew up in a state that didn’t see any Civil War action, so I’m neither a Yankee or a Confederate. There was this one memorial, it commemorated the death of a hundred and sixty eight men, women, and children when a guy detonated a bomb just outside of the building they were in. I’ve walked by the chairs, looked at my reflection the water, and stood beside the tree that survived it all. This is a recent history that gives an outlet for our grief.
I do know that somewhere out there is a statue with the name of one of my ancestors who had a connection to the Civil War. He fought on one side or the other, I don’t really know which. I can imagine two neighbors standing side-by-side as they have to figure out how to explain this statue to a child who might ask why it’s there:
“Well, there was a war a long time ago. It tore our nation in two. This man fought.”
“Did he fight to free the slaves?”
“Why yes, yes he did. This statue is here to remind us that the time is always right to do the right thing.”
“Actually, no, he fought for the other side – to preserve slavery. This statue is here to remind us that even if you fight on the losing side, you can still end up with a statue honoring you for killing your foes, fighting for what you believe in, and the status of a hero.”
I’ve never seen this monument, but I do know that not every memorial is ours. These outlets for grief have their time and place, for a mother mourning the loss of her sons who were spent on the battlefield, for a wife to take consolation that the loss of her spouse was for something. What it meant to them – it doesn’t have to mean the same thing to us. If somebody moved it somewhere else, it wouldn’t erase him or what he did. If somebody destroyed it, it wouldn’t alter history one iota. If somebody put it in a public place and explained it to everyone who passed by – it might make some sad and it might inspire others to pick up the banner and continue on where he left off – and that’s the chief worry; apparently justified by all the violence in recent weeks. But there are some who are too reverent to these southern heroes, who only wish to walk in their footsteps and to make our country into the image of greatness that was their time.
Knowledge of history is often written by victors, and it’s sometimes skewed. Details are chosen selectively to present an acceptable understanding. If we’re not careful, we might think the “Trail of Tears” was when the Native Americans walked to their new homeland and cried because they were overjoyed to be given the State of Oklahoma as their permanent possession. We might simplify complex wars to be about just one issue and paint the combatants with one broad brush stroke of “right” or “wrong”. We need memorials to remind us of the mistakes of the past and how they thought they were doing the right thing and it’s a mistake we can easily make today if we don’t know our history. So we must teach it in a way that puts as many nails into coffin of racism as humanly possible.
Maybe we can’t choose our memorials, but we can choose how we remember them and how we react to them. Since at this present time many who bow at the altar of racism are doing everything they can to keep these statues in public places – we have to find a way to learn from the past and rise above the selfish evil of anger and hatred. Let us make a new memorial and make it plain that racism is never the winning the side.