The past, the present, and the future

I am an eighth generation Kentuckian. My family has been living in Kentucky since the 1700s. My 6th-great grandfather Elias Lovelace fought in the Revolutionary War. My 4th-great grandfather William Sumner fought for the Confederacy during the Civil War. During that time, he was taken prisoner and sent to Camp Douglas in Chicago where he died and was buried. 

I know William Sumner married my 4th-great grandmother when she was 13 and he was 27. I know my 3rd-great grandmother Celinda was only one year old when he left for war. I know he did not own enslaved people. 

The history of my family is incredibly important to me. My devotion to this place is in part because I can feel my family's presence here for generations. The sacrifices they made. The children they buried. The lives they lived that made the one I live possible. 

That's why I find the argument that those who oppose the presence of Confederate monuments do not respect history so incredibly frustrating.  

How do I respect the entirety of my history? How do I respect the ancestor who fought to form this union AND the ancestor who fought to tear it apart? Is the only way to respect my ancestors to ignore the terrible choices they made? Do I have to ignore their flawed humanness and turn them into one-dimensional heroes on a pedastal? 

I reject the idea that the only way to honor the people who came before me is to never question the decisions they made. I will never know what it was like to live during the Civil War. I will never know what choices I would have made during that time. I do know that others made different choices. I do know that people during that time made hard and difficult choices to stand against slavery and oppression and the Confederacy itself. 

The complexity of all these people and the choices they made is why the idea of "history" as one thing is absurd. I understand a desire for the simplicity of one narrative. For most of our two hundred plus years as a nation, we have pushed one version of history. The version where the founding fathers all agreed and were to be lauded as almost infallible heroes. The version where the pioneers were brave and strong and the American Indians were either villains or supportive costars. The version of the Civil War perpetuated by the Cult of the Lost Cause - where the Confederacy was a noble cause and fought bravely against great odds. 

Monuments all over our country have played a role in writing those singular versions of our history but that has never been the full story of the very real human beings who lived during times past. History is not composed solely of monuments anymore than human beings are composed of marble and metal. 

History is complex - as complex as the people who make it. We honor that history not by doubling down on simplistic narratives but by acknowledging that we can respect the contributions of those who came before us without endorsing a system they helped create.

No matter the story we tell, monuments aren't just an accounting of history they are endorsements. Some will argue that we are not endorsing the system of slavery with these monuments and to many perhaps we are not. But there will never be just one meaning for the symbolism of the Confederacy. We do not need to agree on what they mean to everyone to see that they have come to symbolize hate to some. White nationalists and neo-Nazis used these monuments and symbols to rally over 700 people to their cause in Charlottesville. This ugly and frightening use of "history" is a very real threat right now and I reject the idea that I must chose either the past or the present as my priority. I will not reject the fears and safety of the people standing next to me today in order to glorify the people who died long ago. 

I chose to move back to Kentucky in part because I wanted to be back in the place my family had lived for generations. It was also because I was pregnant with my first child and I wanted to raise my family in that same place. A love for my past and a devotion to my future both occupy space in my heart. 

When I look at these Confederate monuments, I think of my ancestors. However, I also think about my black and brown friends who's families have also been here for generations under very different circumstances than mine. I think of the stories they tell their children now when they pass these monuments. I also think about my children and how I owe them the truth above everything else. I think about what stories their children's children will tell about me and my generation. 

I hope they will say that I had a deep love for this place - this country - and the people who came before me that helped build it. I hope they will also say that I never let my desire for a simple story overcome my desire to give a full accounting of what happened before I was born. I hope they will say that I showed my devotion for this place not only by respecting its past but by working to build a better future.