A Consideration of the Confederate Statues

The question of how we honor our ancestors has always been a question fraught with risk. Cultural norms evolve with each new generation and even the most enlightened figures of the past can seem frighteningly retrograde when judged by contemporary standards. All the same, the yearning to look back upon those who came before is a powerful impulse and has inspired countless works of art. Many are created for private audiences but some of the most famous works of art, Mount Rushmore or the Sleeping Buddha, are created for a public audience. The Confederate statues definitely constitute the latter, controversial as they might be, but a growing backlash has convinced many municipalities and states to take down the monuments. Bentonville put up a Joseph Johnston statue less than a decade ago but the statue may not be long for this world if the Confederate statues do not regain their former luster. Defenders of the statue fall back on a number of arguments, some deny that Southern states seceded to preserve the institution of slavery whereas others contend the statue is homage to heritage rather than hatred, and do not lack for powerful allies; Donald Trump has come out firmly in favor of keeping Confederate statues in public spaces, along with a long list of historical foundations.

The residents of Bentonville may decide to keep the Johnston statue in its current location or vote to have it moved elsewhere, perhaps even destroyed, but I think we owe it to ourselves to have a frank discussion about the Confederates either way. The Confederacy does not lack for defenders but it cannot be denied that the Confederacy was founded to preserve slavery. One does not need to hold a Phd in history to recognize this basic truth: one need only consult the writings of the Confederates. After all, the secession statements of the individual states and the public speeches of high-ranking figures like Alexander Stephens do not leave much room for ambiguity. Even Robert E. Lee, so often held up as the respectable Confederate, was positively disposed toward the institution, writing that the “blacks are immeasurably better off here than in Africa… and the painful discipline they are undergoing is necessary for their instruction as a race.”  

Some will contend that it is important to judge Lee and his brethren by the standards of his time. This is of course true but it is worth noting that most of the Western world had already abolished chattel slavery by 1861. England abolished slavery in 1833, France abolished it in 1817, and Denmark abolished it in 1792. Even Russia, often a laggard when it comes to championing human rights, had already abolished serfdom by 1860.

To be fair, many countries around the world did still practice in the mid 1800s but my strong suspicion is that most of the Confederates did not feel they had a strong cultural affinity with countries in Southwest Asia or Sub-Saharan Africa. Keeping in mind that Canada and Mexico had already abolished slavery well before 1861, it is also difficult to argue that North America, as a region, was positively disposed toward the peculiar institution. Chances are they had the strongest affinity with their countrymen and while a great many states in the mid 1800s did permit slavery, a great many did not. So numerous were the free states that Abraham Lincoln won the 1860 election, despite being viewed as hostile to the institution of slavery. Keeping in mind that the electorate at this time consisted only of white men, it is quite notable a man considered hostile to slavery could win the presidency. But America in 1860 was a country that often gave voice to abolitionists, Uncle Tom’s Cabin was one of the best-sellers in all of 19th century America, and it doubtful this line of thinking was foreign to Lee or the secessionists considering that so many of the major Confederate generals received their education in the North.

In all fairness, we did think about race much differently in the 1800s than we do now. Nonetheless, the way we view treason has not changed much. It was a crime punishable by death in the 1800s, just as it is a crime punishable by death now. Jackson, Lee, and Longstreet all chose to swear an oath to the United States when they enlisted in the US military—and they all chose to violate that oath by then taking up arms against the United States. And while some did atone for their betrayal in later years, Longstreet for example, it would be irresponsible to suggest that all of them, or even most of them, followed his lead.

It goes without saying that many of the Confederates were gifted military tacticians. But if the statues were enacted simply to honor distinguished Civil War generals, one has to wonder why Grant and Sherman do not receive similar honors in Bentonville, or other cities that have put up Confederate monuments. Regardless of how one feels about the Union, no one can deny Grant and Sherman were brilliant military leaders. To be fair, neither Grant nor Sherman hailed from Bentonville and it would make sense if the city wanted to honor a local instead. But Joseph E. Johnston cannot be considered a local either, unless of course Virginia is now part of North Carolina.

Longstreet did, however, hail from North Carolina but one won’t find many statues of him in Bentonville. This might make sense if Longstreet were an undistinguished soldier but he was well known to contemporaries and ended up being one of the most accomplished generals of the entire war. Many of the Confederacy’s most important victories can be attributed to his military skills and the debacle that was Gettysburg could have been avoided had Lee simply heeded Longstreet’s advice. While it could be a simple oversight that the Daughters of the Confederacy did not raise funds for Longstreet statues with the same enthusiasm they did so for Lee or Jackson, it is more likely politics that played a role in the decision. Longstreet was detested by many of the Confederate sympathizers for his willingness to assist with Reconstruction efforts, so much so he was even taken hostage, and it would be strange indeed if that played no role whatsoever in the lack of Longstreet statues in his home state. 

Ultimately, the people of Bentonville will decide what happens with the Johnston statue, not to mention all the other Confederate statues in the city. But regardless of what these people decide, it is important all of us, no matter which side of the debate we fall on, to reject the mythology that puts a pretty face on the Confederacy and be honest with ourselves about what many of the Confederate statues really represent. 

A Tale of Two Tour Guides

In early 2019, I visited Mexico with some friends and we visited a number of historic sites with tour groups. Ultimately, I am glad we had guides to show us around and I think we had a richer experience because of it. Having said that, our experience with the tour guides was a poignant reminder of why it can be problematic to rely on just one source for information about historical matters.

Our first tour guide, a man named Gabe, set the bar pretty high when it came to tour guides. Completely bilingual, he was comfortable making jokes in Spanish and English and knew his script cold. It’s possible he was simply regurgitating company talking points and if that was the case, my hat goes off to the tour company for using talking points supported by modern scholarship. Chances are, however, Gabe gave us a speech he had probably written himself, considering all the personal tidbits he incorporated into his tour speech.

Gabe in the lower left corner

Right from the get go, he let us know he was not going to use the term Aztec, explained why he was not going to use the term, and then proceded to let us all know he would be using the term Mexica instead. While I cannot speak for the others in the group, I know that I personally appreciated his decision and his impassioned explanation. Moreover, I was very impressed by his ability to translate Nahua terms and his granular knowledge of artistic displays.

Xochimilco tour
Frida Kahla tour

The tour guide we had in Veracruz was not quite as impressive. Carlos employed far less humor in his presentation and never even used the term Mexica. Compared to Gabe, Carlos’ presentation was a tad dry and left a bit to be desired when it came to historical accuracy. Now just to be clear, Carlos was not a bad tour guide. He was very accommodating and had some great food suggestions—the restaurant, Villa Rica Mocambo if I remember correctly, he dropped us off at the end of the tour was so good we ended up coming back just two days later.

Quiahuiztlan
Picture from La Antigua

The main difference between Gabe and Carlos probably boils down to personal interests. While I cannot know for sure, I am pretty sure Gabe researched Mesoamerican history on his own and I am pretty sure Carlos just used the company script. Unfortunately, the company script probably relied upon outdated sources which ended up hamstringing Carlos’ ability to provide accurate information. By and large, Carlos did not say anything that raised eyebrows amongst other members of the tour group and I think that’s worth noting.

Cempoala

Owing to the research I have had to do for the Tenochtitlan Trilogy and my studies in school, I have learned quite a bit about pre-Hispanic Mexico. I genuinely enjoy reading books by the likes of Restall and Townsend and have a very strong interest in Mesoamerican history. Because of this, it was easy for me to tell that Gabe gave a much more accurate presentation than Carlos and I am inclined to believe that anybody who had Gabe and Carlos as tour guides would probably recognize that Gabe had a better understanding of the Spanish-Mexica war. Nonetheless, Carlos provides tours in Veracruz and Gabe provides tours in CDMX so I can’t imagine there is a great deal of overlap between their customers. Consequently, at least some of the people who were given a tour by Carlos never had any exposure to Gabe. It’s possible that all of Carlos’ tourists went out and read the most recent academic texts on the Spanish-Mexica war but I suspect that’s probably not the case. In any case, tourists who relied primarily on Carlos’ take probably received some bad information.

Unfortunately, bad information is not always easy to recognize. Sometimes a misleading narrative can be well-crafted—Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind or Shakespeare’s MacBeth are some great examples of this. So whether writing a historical novel or visiting a historic site, it’s worth noting that relying on just one source entails risk. Sometimes that one source can be someone like Gabe and sometimes that one source can be someone like Carlos. To know one way or another, it’s usually best to consult multiple sources and, all told, good sources are like good stories: the more, the merrier.

Respect and history

Towards the end of my time in Ghana, I went to visit the Elmina slave castle with my CIEE group. It was an extremely moving experience and one that I will remember for a long time. Part of the reason it was so moving was the knowledge that my family had been taken as part of the Atlantic slave trade but judging by the expressions of the other students who had joined for the CIEE excursion, it was a poignant experience regardless of heritage. Nonetheless, it was an experience marred by my interactions with some of the locals. Before I could even enter the museum, I came across a Ghanaian man named Isaac Boston. Like most Ghanaians living in Cape Coast, he had an extremely Anglo name and had no trouble communicating with me in English. Before I even had the chance to say a few words to him, he had offered me a seashell with a note urging me to “have a good trip at Elmina Castle.”

I found it off-putting to say the least but that wasn’t even the worst of it. Isaac then had the temerity to ask me if I would be willing to give him a few cedi. He was quick to explain the seashell was completely free but added that tossing a few cedi his way would be a nice way of showing my appreciation for the seashell. His smile was so warm and his request so earnest that it was difficult to be angry with him, but the experience left a bad taste in my mouth all the same. Unfortunately, things did not get better once we entered the castle.

The tour guide seemed to have little to no respect for the trauma associated with the Elmina slave castle and saw nothing at all wrong about taking us to a gift shop immediately after taking us to the Female Slave Dungeon where women would be abused and tortured for being disobedient. Perhaps it could have made sense if the gift shop was a place we visited after finishing the tour of Elmina, or at least had the knowledge that our money would go to some NGO like End Slavery Now, but it was a stop planned for the middle of the tour and absolutely no explanation was provided as to where our money would go.

From what I have read online, the Ghanaian man who led us around Elmina was not especially callous in his attitude toward the trauma of the Atlantic slave trade. If anything, his attitude was pretty typical. As far as many of the locals are concerned, the slave trade didn’t effect them. After all, they still live in Ghana so their lineage was “uninterrupted” so to speak.

What’s great about historical fiction is it can help coax the callous out of their comfort zones but, ultimately, the door swings both ways. Sometimes historical fiction can take the sharp edges off a tragedy, whether it’s using war and colonialism as the backdrop for an erotica series like Jennings did with his Aztec series or intentionally promoting a very distorted version of history like Mitchell did with Gone With the Wind. Historical novelists have a duty to be respectful of history and I think the same holds true for individuals that visit historic sites.

Chances are we have all been that “disrespectful tourist” at some point, either because we lacked for a basic understanding of the history behind a place or because we just really wanted a nice souvenir to take home. Nonetheless, I hope we can all realize that certain places are not meant for smiling selfies and some stories aren’t supposed to be light-hearted. Now that summer is pretty much in full swing, I think this is important for all of us to remember the importance of respect for history since many of us will use this time to write, to vacation, or to read. No matter how one chooses to spend this summer, I hope we can all learn a lesson from Isaac Boston. Otherwise, we run the risk of being an irreverent seashell and not understanding why nobody seems to like what that represents.

Food and history

Earlier this year, I had the good fortune to visit Mexico to do some research related to my historical series, the Tenochtitlan Trilogy, and some close friends from high school were kind enough to join me. As someone who very much appreciates a good meal, I usually make a point to research the local eateries anytime I travel somewhere new but I was much less diligent about doing so on this trip. In some respects, it felt unnecessary considering so many friends who had already told me exactly where I should eat while in Mexico. One friend, Mariana, was even kind enough to provide a nine page itinerary on what to do and where to eat while visiting Mexico City. The suggestions were great and Mexico City was a blast. However, it was not the only city we spent time in during our trip. After about a week in Mexico City, we set off for Veracruz.

Getting to Veracruz was no problem but navigating the food scene was much more difficult. None of us had researched the Veracruz food scene in great depth and most of the restaurant suggestions we had been given were specific to CDMX. We had a great time while in Veracruz, though it might be wrong for to speak on behalf of my friend who suffered some epic food poisoning while there, but the restaurants seemed a little lacking compared to the ones we visited in Mexico City. That changed once we found the Moctezuma restaurant.

The Moctezuma restaurant was not a restaurant any of us had heard of prior to visiting Veracruz. Truth be told, we almost walked past the restaurant. However, owing to the name and the restaurant’s eye-catching mural, we decided to check the place out despite knowing very little about it. I’m glad we did as the Moctezuma restaurant treated us to a dining experience that we will remember fondly for many years to come.

While I am definitely not a professional food critic or a world-class chef, I’m also no stranger to good food. I grew up in a household that put a premium on home cooking and my mother’s culinary skills made her a neighborhood legend. Moreover, spending time in cities like Beijing, Accra, San Francisco, New York, and Washington, DC has only deepened my respect for good food. The food we had at Moctezuma restaurant wasn’t merely good though it was great. Just thinking about our meal is enough to make my mouth water and I will be sure to visit the restaurant next time I am in Veracruz.

The chefs at Moctezuma restaurant should be commended for their intimate knowledge of gastronomy but I think they should also be commended for their skills as “food authors.” Traditionally, authors have been storytellers who employ the written word to relate some sort of narrative but Moctezuma restaurant provides a powerful example of how this is not always the case. A meal can tell a story just as much as a Shakespearean sonnet can, sometimes more so, and the food at Moctezuma restaurant tells a fascinating story deeply rooted in Mexican history.

When the Spanish invaded Mexico in 1519, they brought with them beasts of labor, deadly diseases, and cultural traditions dating back centuries. The Spaniards had every intention of establishing themselves as the dominant power in Mesoamerica and they were very successful in many regards. These days, there are a lot more Christ worshippers in Mexico than there are Huitzilopochtli worshippers. Nonetheless, it would be a mistake to think the Spanish succeeded in remaking Mexico in their image and their imperial ambitions were often thwarted by Amerindians who actively fought attempts at cultural erasure. This resistance manifested itself in many different forms and evidence of it can be found in almost every dish at Moctezuma restaurant.

Staples of Spanish cuisine like beef and pork are served with Mesoamerican staples like chapulites and corn in combinations that showcase an impressive creativity. No one dish can be considered wholly European or Amerindian and the menu speaks to a blending of many unique cultures, a concept that continues to be relevant in modern Mexico. Whether a foodie or a history buff, Moctezuma restaurant has something to offer for everyone and I would highly recommend this restaurant to anyone visiting the Veracruz area.