Confederate Monuments: Idols or Icons?

The movement to remove and replace the many statues honoring Confederate leaders that speckle city centers through the South is one that has existed for some time, but has picked up a great deal of steam in the last several years, culminating in the recent rally and ensuing violence in Charlottesville, Virginia. Baltimore, New Orleans, and other major American cities have moved quickly to get rid of the monuments. Other cities, like Savannah, Georgia, have publicly announced pending changes in the placement and form of their monuments.

Americans of various backgrounds are, of course, deeply divided on the issue and both sides have leveraged arguments worth considering. There are those, for example, who see these memorials as endorsements of slavery, segregation, and racism and as lingering symbols that seem to celebrate or belie the darker aspects of American history. Others see these monuments as reflections of their heritage and their removal as an attempt to erase their place in the history of the United States.

A Christian, however, must consider this—and anything else—from the perspective of Christian faith, thought, and history. The first thousand years of Christianity witnessed two major movements for the destruction of certain pictorial representations. The first was the removal or destruction of the images of pagan gods in the Roman Empire in fourth and fifth centuries. The second was the iconoclastic movement of the Byzantine Empire in the eighth century. The latter of these movements resulted in the Seventh Ecumenical Council (the Second Council of Nicaea) in 787 and its restoration of Christian iconography to the churches, homes, and public places of the Empire. It also provided Christians with a theology of iconography, still especially strong in the churches that derive from the Byzantine tradition, that can be applied to current debates about Confederate monuments.

The distinction adopted by the Seventh Ecumenical Council and first fully formulated by St. John of Damascus, the tireless defender of icons, is one that separates images into two categories: the iconographic and the idolatrous. What both sorts of images hold in common is that they serve to make the person or thing depicted present, in a sense, to the viewer. As anyone who has observed Eastern Christian veneration of icons knows—involving, as it does, repetitions of bows, crossing oneself, and kissing—this making-present exceeds mere signification and passes into a temporary and partial identification of that which is signified with the signifier. The key difference between the icon and the idol, however, is whether what is made present by the image is true or false.

This distinction is the basis upon which the destruction of the idols of Mithras and Serapis in Alexandria or the removal of the statue of Victory in the Roman Senate in the fourth century can be seen as justified. And it is the basis upon which the destruction of the icons of Constantinople in the eighth century is condemned. As false gods, the making-present of Mithras, Serapis, and Nike/Victory through their statues was a dangerous deception. Representations of the Incarnate Son of God, the Virgin Mary, saints, and angels, however, make present that which is good and true and so serve for the edification of the believer and become worthy conduits of the piety of the worshiper through acts of veneration bestowed upon the images.

Distinguishing between the icon and the idol can, however, sometimes become complicated. A depiction of Aphrodite—clearly an idol to man’s sinful lust in the fourth century—may take on some of the attributes of an icon when created by the hands and paintbrush of a Christian artist in the fifteenth century. The figure depicted has been purged of the temptation to worship a false god and Christian-Platonically baptized anew as a symbol of the eternal beauty of the Godhead. A Christian tourist or art pilgrim today can happily walk among the many statues of the gods of Greece and Rome in any museum in Europe without the slightest temptation to sacrifice an ox to Jupiter; he or she can, in fact, see in these statues the wonders of man’s possibilities—the human artist in the image of the divine artist—and so be led to the worship of the true God even through what were once worshiped as images of false gods.

The same is true of many of the Confederate statues whose presence is currently under debate. As is well known, many of these statues were built in the early 20th century, more than a generation after the Civil War and coinciding—though the contemporaneity is hardly a coincidence—with increasingly oppressive Jim Crow laws in the South; anti-black, anti-immigrant, and anti-Catholic sentiment; a resurgent Ku Klux Klan able to muster 25,000 robed members for a 1926 march in Washington, D.C.; and a rise in lynchings and other crimes and intimidation against people of color, Jews, and Catholics. They are, in short, more monuments to the racism of the day they were built than to the heroes of bygone days. Other monuments, however, reflect a different spirit. The monument “to the Confederate war dead” in Savannah, Georgia’s Forsyth Park is one example. Erected in the 1870s by the women of Savannah—many of whom, no doubt, had lost brothers, sons, and husbands in the Civil War—on the place where their male family members once trained, it seems to be more of a monument to grief over lost loved ones than an insidious symbol of enduring racism.

What is the Christian, then, to do? What does the iconographic perspective prescribe for the future of Confederate monuments? In short, a level head and the ability to carefully consider and distinguish between icons to grief, loss, and personal heroism and idols to racism, white supremacy, slavery, and other heresies and false gods. We must be willing to call evil by its name, but also willing, as our Fathers in the Faith once did, to save what is worth saving and to baptize what can be baptized.


History and Race Vindication in The Gift of Black Folk (Du Bois and Scientific Racism, 5 of 6)

Twenty years after the initial publication of The Souls of Black Folk, Du Bois set out to expand upon his use of history for race vindication with his 1924 book The Gift of Black Folk. There, Du Bois built significantly upon his previous lists of African American contributions in yet another attempt. Published by the Knights of Columbus, a Catholic fraternal organization, as part of a series of three volumes exploring the contributions of persecuted ethnic groups to the United States, The Gift of Black Folk, along with the other two volumes in the series—one on Jewish people and the other on Germans—was part of an attempt to combat rising prejudice in the interwar United States by highlighting the achievements of members of ethnic minority groups.

        The book takes its title, argument, and structure from an assertion Du Bois originally made in The Souls of Black Folk:

Here we have brought three gifts and mingled them with yours: a gift of story and song—soft, stirring melody in ill-harmonized and unmelodious land; the gift of sweat and brawn to beat back the wilderness, conquer the soil, and lay the foundations of this vast economic empire two hundred years earlier than your weak hands could have done it; the third, a gift of the Spirit.[54]

The chapters of The Gift of Black Folk begin with a discussion of “the gift of sweat and brawn.” Starting with the earliest explorers of the Americas and stretching through the history of the United States, Du Bois describes the numerous ways in which African American manual labor has contributed to the development of America. “Hard manual labor, and much of it of a disagreeable sort, must for a long time lie at the basis of civilized life,” Du Bois writes in response to those who would devalue this sort of work.[55] “In an ideal society it would be highly-paid work because of its unpleasantness and necessity.” Following this discussion of the contributions of black labor to the building of the United States, Du Bois transitions, via a discussion of the participation of African Americans in all of the United States’ wars, to a discussion of the cultural and intellectual contributions of African Americans to American society.

        Expanding on his claims in The Suppression of the African Slave-Trade and The Souls of Black Folk, Du Bois once again highlights the role that African Americans played as active agents in securing their own freedom. In so doing, claims Du Bois, African Americans accomplished a great victory for democracy and thereby expanded and secured the liberties of all peoples. Du Bois links African Americans’ struggle for and achievement of emancipation to the history of the United States as a whole: “There have been four great steps toward democracy taken in America: The refusal to be taxed by the English Parliament; the escape from European imperialism; the discarding of New England aristocracy; and the enfranchisement of the Negro slave.”[56] By gaining their own freedom, then, African Americans became participants in the expansion of freedom that has marked American history more generally. It is an “inescapable fact,” explains Du Bois, “that as long as there was a slave in America, America could not be a free republic.”[57] The self-emancipation of African Americans, then, is a victory for all Americans.

        Du Bois also extends this discussion to encompass the overturning of social hierarchies more generally, attributing to the emancipation of the African American slaves of the South and the subsequent period of Reconstruction in that region the advent of “democratic government . . . free public schools . . . [and] new social legislation” which ended the Southern slaveholding oligarchy and thereby made the South more democratic, granting access to education and representation to whites of the non-slaveholding classes as well.[58] Du Bois would significantly expand upon these thesis in 1934 with his publication of Black Reconstruction in America: An Essay Toward a History of the Part Which Black Folk Played in the Attempt to Reconstruct Democracy in America, 1860–1880. There, taking a more clearly Marxist turn in his historiography, Du Bois countered the claims of the scientific and historical racists that African American leadership failed during Reconstruction and that the good that came out of the period was to be attributed to whites with, as was typical of his style, another thoroughly researched and well-documented historical discussion.[59]

        The last half of the book Du Bois dedicates to the gifts of song and spirit, the contributions by African Americans to American culture which he had highlighted as the most significant in The Souls of Black Folk. Writing as he did in 1924 during the Harlem Renaissance Du Bois is now able to expand upon his previous discussions of these contributions by pointing to the rising importance of African American music as well as the numerous contemporary African American poets. As Du Bois writes, these musicians and poets “form a fairly continuous tradition and a most valuable group expression” that rose out of the spirituals and became the definitively American musical and poetic forms.[60] Just as American culture was shaped by the musical and poetic traditions of African Americans, writes Du Bois, American religion—that great center of all culture—bears the “imprint of Africa on Europe in America.”[61] In the final chapter, Du Bois discusses the numerous contributions of Africans and African Americans to American Christianity, both Protestant and Catholic, including leadership, hymns, and styles of worship. As Du Bois had shown, then, African Americans had contributed to the United States in body, mind, and soul.

[54] Ibid., 262–263.

[55] W. E. B. Du Bois, The Gift of Black Folk [1924] (Garden City Park, NY: Square One Publishers, 2009), 17.

[56] Ibid., 81.

[57] Ibid., 59.

[58] Ibid., 106.

[59] W. E. B. Du Bois, Black Reconstruction in America: An Essay toward a History of the Part Which Black Folk Played in the Attempt to Reconstruct Democracy in America, 1860-1880 (London: Cass, 1966).

[60] Ibid., 144.

[61] Ibid., 151.

Historical Vindication: Suppression of the African Slave-Trade and The Philadelphia Negro (Du Bois and Scientific Racism, 3 of 6)

Du Bois’s first foray into what would become a lifetime of writing toward this goal of race vindication came in 1892 with the writing of his meticulously documented doctoral dissertation The Suppression of the African Slave-Trade to the United States of America, 1638–1870. In this dissertation, Du Bois did not engage in the philosophizing and mythmaking sort of historical research which had long been popular and remained so up to his time. Thomas Babington Macaulay’s five-volume work The History of England from the Accession of James II had been read by Du Bois “with relish as a child and then at Fisk,” but Du Bois found the tendencies of Macaulay and other earlier and contemporary historians to engage in metaphysics, moralizing, and mythologizing insufficient to his task.[22] Du Bois knew the strength and popularity of the ideas that he was working to repudiate and saw that need for a purely and overwhelmingly scientific argument against them—the sort of argument that could not be refuted or rejected as mere speculation or opinion.

        Such was the power and popularity of the “pseudo-science” in history, biology, and other fields of thought which insisted that blacks were inherently unequal to whites that even former ardent supporters of the uplift of African Americans were beginning to be won over by the arguments of the advocates of racial hierarchy. As Shamoon Zamir writes,

Even [Professor Albert Bushnell] Hart [of Harvard University], Du Bois’s dissertation supervisor, proud of his abolitionist heritage and exceptionally active in his support of black advance, conceded in reviewing literature purporting to demonstrate black inferiority that “if provably, it is an argument that not only justifies slavery, but now justifies any degree of political and social dependence.” Hart finally agreed that the argument was indeed provable and that blacks were inferior to even “poor white people, immigrants or natives.”[23]

That even someone like Hart could be won over by the arguments being advanced by the scientific racists at the end of the nineteenth century is demonstrative of the formidable task that Du Bois faced as he set out.

        In Suppression of the African Slave-Trade, Du Bois chose to remain firmly in the realm of the empirical. Relying heavily upon citation of primary source material for every claim put forward, Du Bois thoroughly documented the failure of those who opposed the slave trade and of the United States as a whole to put an end to the slave trade, often in spite of its own self-understandings and promises. In four appendices spanning more than a hundred pages in the original, Du Bois provided lists of dozens of sources for his conclusions drawn from laws passed at the local, state, national, and international levels.[24] In so doing, Du Bois smashed the myths of American exceptionalism and American moral superiority, exposing the failure of the United States to live up to its own proclaimed values of freedom and equality. By all accounts, Du Bois’s dissertation was an outstanding success. It became the first published volume in the Harvard Historical Series of books.[25] As Lewis points out, “critical reception of The Suppression of the African Slave Trade had made him one of the most talked-about young scholars in the country.”[26]

        Du Bois’s first academic appointment after graduation from Harvard was as Chair of the Department of Classics at Wilberforce University. There, in nearly a direct refutation of Calhoun’s infamous pronouncement on the inability of people of African descent to understand Greek syntax, Du Bois taught not only Greek but Latin, English, and German, in addition to history.[27] He requested to teach a course in sociology as well, but was turned down by the administration. Du Bois’s tenure at as a member of the Wilberforce University faculty, however, was short-lived.

        After only two years at Wilberforce, Du Bois took up a position at the University of Pennsylvania that afforded him the opportunity to continue his scientific investigations into the lives of African Americans and their communities. This time, the product of Du Bois’s work would be his 1899 book The Philadelphia Negro, “the first sociological study of an African American community ever published in the United States.”[28] Du Bois’s groundbreaking work set out to study the social conditions of African Americans living in Philadelphia’s Seventh Ward. Du Bois’s sponsors at the University of Pennsylvania initially commissioned the work in the hopes that the observations of Du Bois, undoubtedly the world’s leading black scholar already at this point in his life, would confirm what white sociologists had long claimed: that the poverty, crime, and squalid conditions of emerging African American urban communities were to be attributed to innate black inferiority. Du Bois writes in his autobiographical Dusk of Dawn, “The fact was that the city of Philadelphia at that time had a theory; and that theory was that this great, rich, and famous municipality was going to the dogs because of the crime and venality of its Negro citizens, who lived largely in the slums at the lower end of the seventh ward.”[29] Du Bois’s work, however, not only refuted but entirely upended such claims.

        “Though black and committed to social justice,” writes Keith E. Byerman, Du Bois resolved to “function as a disinterested scientist in examining black life,” certain that the facts as accurately documented and reported would bear out his belief that the poor conditions of black life in Philadelphia were not the consequence of black inferiority.[30] Just as he had in his research and writing for his doctoral dissertation, Du Bois was once again as meticulous as possible in both the research for and the presentation of The Philadelphia Negro. As Zamir writes, “Du Bois succeeded in deploying empirical practice against the alliance of pseudo-science, liberal optimism, and racism not only because his marginalized position fostered critical understanding, but also because he enlarged his scientific training to include more historical assessment of the evidence in his work.”[31] Only after carefully tracing the history of the African American community of Philadelphia and explaining the various trials it had faced from the forces of racism, economic and social exclusion, the competition for jobs with newly-arrived immigrants from Europe, and the setbacks caused by the migration of African American former slaves from the South. Following this historical survey, Du Bois launched into a lengthy presentation of the sociological data he gathered by personally visiting every African American household in the seventh ward as well as others elsewhere in the city. For almost a year and a half, Du Bois himself travelled from house to house in the seventh ward with a set of questions inquiring into family life, income, employment, religious affiliation, and other facts about the household and its members.[32] For his presentation of the data he collected in The Philadelphia Negro, writes Byerman, “Du Bois fills his chapters with tables and graphs to demonstrate that his study is in fact wonderfully objective.”[33] The result is an exceedingly well-researched and well-documented study that undermines the insistence of “the city authorities” who claimed “that the city’s problems stemmed from its black population,” writes Zamir.[34] Instead, “Du Bois not only exposed the myth of black criminality, but also laid a large part of the blame for the condition of the Seventh Ward at the doorstep of white prejudice and its enforcement in both overt and hidden ways.”[35] Applying the scientific methodologies he had learned at Harvard alongside his own inclination to specificity and meticulousness, Du Bois presented for the first time a definitive and indubitable argument that historical and social factors—including especially the effects of white racism on housing and employment opportunities for African Americans—were largely to blame for African American poverty rather than black inferiority, as white social scientists and others had insisted.

        In both The Suppression of the African Slave-Trade and The Philadelphia Negro, Du Bois had used the tools of historical study and scientific research as a means by which to vindicate his race before a white audience and its prejudices. With The Suppression of the African Slave-Trade, he had meticulously documented the failure of the United States to live up to its own proclaimed values, calling into question the popular notion of American exceptionalism and demonstrating the moral shortcomings of the nation. In The Philadelphia Negro, Du Bois once again called into question the assumptions of white Americans by turning a study of African Americans into a mirror through which white Americans could see their own shortcomings and the ways in which those shortcomings created the conditions that prevented African Americans from social and economic advancement. In his 1903 book The Souls of Black Folk, still his most popular and influential work and widely considered a classic of American letters, Du Bois would set out to do still more than this in his refutation of racism.

[22] Shamoon Zamir, Dark Voices: W. E. B. Du Bois and American Thought, 1888–1903 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995), 82.

[23] Ibid., 85.

[24] W. E. B. Du Bois, The Suppression of the African Slave-Trade to the United States of America, 1638–1870, in Writings, 199–345.

[25] Yvonne Williams, “Harvard,” in W. E. B. Du Bois: An Encyclopedia, eds. Gerald Home and Mary Young (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2001), 99.

[26] Lewis, 141.

[27] W. E. B. Du Bois, The Correspondence of W. E. B. Du Bois, Selections: 1877–1934, ed. Herbert Aptheker (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1973), 38.

[28]  Laura Desfor Edles and Scott Appelrouth, eds., Sociological Theory in the Classical Era: Text and Readings (Los Angeles: Pine Forge Press, 2010), 338.

[29] Du Bois, Dusk of Dawn, in Writings, 596.

[30] Keith E. Byerman, Seizing the Word: History, Art, and the Self in the Work of W. E. B. Du Bois (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1994), 51.

[31] Zamir, 89.

[32] W. E. B. Du Bois, The Philadelphia Negro: A Social Study [1899] (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1996), 1–2.

[33] Byerman, 52.

[34] Zamir, 89.

[35] Ibid.

Book Review: Travels with Charley by John Steinbeck

This book is one of the most interesting that I have read in a very long time. It is the thoughts and experiences of one of America’s greatest authors, John Steinbeck, as he travels across the United States with his dog, Charley. He begins his travels from his home in New York, driving across the northern half of the country on his way to his childhood home in California. In his journey back east, he travels the length of Texas as well as a South in the midst of desegregation and the Civil Rights Movement.

Along the way, Steinbeck experiences America through conversations with average Americans of all sorts. His focus throughout the book is largely upon these conversations and the impressions they make upon him as well as the insights they grant him into what makes America and its people unique and what binds them together.

I found the second half of the book, which features his travels through Texas and the Deep South, the most interesting. It is here, as Steinbeck sees the Civil Rights Movement and the South’s racial attitudes first hand, that we get to see Steinbeck at his best, both in his ability to empathize with black and white in the South, to see the complexities of the situation. Rather than reducing the South and its relationship to race to simple assertions of good vs. evil, Steinbeck sees the human element throughout and allows the reader to see it as well.

Although it is now 50 years old, the America that this book shows remains largely the same in spirit and substance. Travels with Charley is essential reading for anyone looking for the meaning of America.

Book Review: Bede’s History of the English Church and People

The Venerable Bede’s History of the English Church and People is an interesting read, though not one I’d recommend for those who do not have a relatively intense interest in the subject matter contained in the title. Bede’s history often reads as a record of English folktales about monks and various holy man more than it reads like history in the sense most modern people attach to that word. In fact, it might make better religious reading than it does historical or literary reading. Unless you have a real interest in the primary sources for medieval English religious thought, it would be best to stick to more modern academic writing on the subject of English history.

What I found most interesting about the book is the tension it exhibits between an incipient nationalism on the British Isles and the Christianity notion of catholicity as the universality of faith in the Church. The question of the legitimacy of practices native to or at least antecedent of the Roman practice in Britain frequently arises. Bede is fairly charitable, especially given the climate of the Church at that time, but always sides with the Roman practice as evincing a catholic nature over the more local, even if older, practices.

It was this tension between nation and Catholic Church, of course, that eventually led the English Church to schism from the Roman Church in the 16th century. That such a tension existed at even this early point, albeit in quite different forms, makes for some often fascinating reading, for one so intellectually inclined.

Gibbon on early Christianity

Our most recent reading in the Great Books of the Western World reading project is Enlightenment historian Edward Gibbon’s treatment of early Christianity. While dripping with sarcasm, Gibbon’s treatment of the first three centuries of the Christian Church is perhaps the best treatment of the subject by any historian, ancient or modern, and a must-read for anyone with even a minor interest in the history of Christianity.

The aspects of this reading that make it the best treatment of early Christianity that I have read are the same that make it important enough to be included among the Great Books of the Western World. Gibbon’s attempt to chronicle and understand the rise of Christianity from obscurity to the religion of the greatest empire the world had yet seen is the first of its kind in a number of ways, the most important of which is its unflinching honesty. Earlier writings on early Christianity, Eusebius’s Ecclesiastical History being the most celebrated and significant example, were largely pious and fairly superstitious attempts to prove the superiority of the Christian faith over its pagan predecessors. Gibbon, however, departs from this model in favor of one that seeks to examine the merely human motives and activities behind the rise of Christianity. For this attempt to paint an accurate picture of the human activity behind the rise of the most important religion in the history of the world, Gibbon’s treatment deserves a sympathetic and attentive reading.