Meditating on Silent Sam: Open Questions to the South

Glittering gold leaves shake and shudder in the November afternoon sunlight as I meandered through the northern part of UNC’s campus. The weather couldn’t have been more perfect, the air was crisp and fresh, and students streamed off campus for Thanksgiving, lighthearted. Despite the fall glory, as I smiled up at the fiery boughs above my head I couldn’t shake my mind free of Billie Holiday’s creaking whispers. Southern trees bear strange fruit…

 

By Yellowspacehopper at English Wikipedia, CC BY 3.0, Link

Eighty-six strides around the metal fencing surrounding the plinth that once held Silent Sam, the university’s infamous Confederate soldier monument. Silent Sam was himself 86ed in August, and since then Chapel Hill can’t stop talking about him. For someone so silent, Sam has generated a lot of conversation.

 

By HameltionOwn work, CC BY-SA 4.0, Link

On one side of the plinth, a woman in flowing gowns stands in bas-relief. Her left hand rests on the shoulder of a young seated man and her right holds a long sword. The woman representing the spirit of North Carolina entreats the white male student to set aside his books and pick up a weapon to defend his country. A plaque on the side extols the virtues of sacrifice and duty.

 

By HameltionOwn work, CC BY-SA 4.0, Link

This is the legacy that some protesters wish to preserve in reinstalling the monument. To other protesters, the statue can’t help but glorify the institution of slavery.

 

By HameltionOwn work, CC BY-SA 4.0, Link

I’m not from North Carolina. I’m not even southern. Not even close. As I wandered around the base of Silent Sam’s former perch, I couldn’t help but wonder how much this conversation has to do with me as an outsider to the culture.

A visitor.

A student.

An Alaskan.

An American.

A white person.

A human.

To what extent does this ideological battle belong to me or to my cultural legacy?

I don’t know whether it’s my business to speak about this matter, so instead, I’ve written an open letter to the South.

I have questions.

Open Letter to the South

Dear South,

What is our duty now?

  • Can the duty of the modern South not be to bravely protect the rights of all its citizens?
  • Can’t Southern Pride mean a commitment to developing a stronger South based not on its problematic past, but the promise of its future?
  • What is the legacy of this generation of southerners, and what does it mean to be southern? What values does that encompass?
  • To what extent do we have the responsibility to bear witness to the past? To what extent do we have the responsibility to move beyond it?
  • How much of our conflict is actually about racism and hatred, and how much of it is about something else? What else? Feelings of victimhood or persecution? Fear of erasure? Erasure of who? What can we create when we choose to build with such impoverished materials?
  • What could a win-win scenario look like here? How can we design a solution that allows both sets of protesters to feel heard and understood? To save face?
  • How can we honor the best of two seemingly opposing sides and histories?
  • How can we undermine the idea that there have to be sides?

Please, put down the megaphones and pack up the rhetoric. It’s time to talk.

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