When I was a boy, I pinned a photo to the bulletin board hanging on my bedroom wall—a 4×6 color snapshot of the local university mascot, (weirdly) signed and gifted to my parents to pass on to me. I was a fan of the school’s football and basketball teams, so in the mind of a kid who hadn’t yet touched a boob, this was kind of a big deal.
It was a shot of Chief Illiniwek, dressed in full regalia—a battle uniform of sorts?—with arms high and spread proudly, surely inviting a Native American god—or was it gods?—to descend to the fuzzy concrete AstroTurf of Memorial Stadium. At halftime of the games, “The Chief,” barefoot and stoic, would get turnt. The Marching Illini’s rendition of Three-In-One—a medley of vaguely militaristic tunes—would send the turkey-feather headdress and buckskin tassels flying, The Chief breaking off a magnificent dance of uncertain origin as tens of thousands of European-descended Midwesterners set down their nachos, put their hands together and swelled with pride.
Whatever context was lacking in this enterprise was made up for in the fervent loyalty shown toward all things Chief Illiniwek. Students and locals loved the spectacle, and The Chief seemed universally revered as a symbol of honor and dignity. So when the first rumblings rippled through campus and into the cornfields—inappropriate was the word most often heard—people were puzzled. When the rumblings amplified to a roar—racist was the word being thrown around—those same people freaked. And so did I.
Hold on, I thought. We love The Chief! We stand. We sing. How could that possibly be inappropriate, let alone racist? This was the overriding sentiment around town, although some dug their heels in just a bit deeper bracing against this newfangled political correctness business. No one had ever had a problem with the tradition before. And what about the Washington Redskins, the Cleveland Indians’ Chief Wahoo and the Atlanta Braves’ chop—weren’t they all worse? Why the hell were they picking on our guy? Besides, a local TV station had interviewed an official from some tribe in Oklahoma about The Chief, and he said they were totally cool with it. Case closed.
Except that it wasn’t. The more I read on the subject, the more I talked through the issues, the more it was that I realized—even as a dumbass country kid—that this didn’t sit well with the only people that really mattered: Descendants of the Illiniwek were decidedly not cool with The Chief and those “traditions” that had sprung up around him—which were only very loosely tied to the tribe in the first place, and whose adaptations to the whims of a marching band, student body and athletic fanbase were the very definition of appropriation. The university held no claim on a culture or a people—to say nothing of the goddamn football team.
I’m reminded of this now—the importance of perspective—as anger simmers around the country over the removal (or preservation) of monuments imbued with deeper, and darker, meanings. A Robert E. Lee here, a Jefferson Davis there. Tributes to Confederate soldiers and the justice in the infamous Dred Scott case. In Baltimore, the mayor—a black woman—had the city’s controversial statues removed under cover of night. In Durham, N.C., protestors ripped down a monument outside the county courthouse in broad daylight, which seemed to get under the skin of the local fuzz in a way that, say, the dubious shooting of an unarmed black man by police a few hours away ever could.
These symbols represent different ideas to different people, but let’s not go bending ourselves into knots wrestling with vacuous “ethical” questions about their context. They aren’t mascots. They aren’t observances of heritage. And they aren’t cautionary relics prodding us on from our horrific past, toward the path of righteousness—not when they are placed in exalted positions atop pedestals at the center of town squares.
They are hubris. They are the face-saving clapback of the defeated. They are a collective fuck you from a privileged clan stubbornly refusing to acknowledge that it built a paper empire on the wrong side of history. If, when you gaze upon General Lee riding high astride his mount in Charlottesville, Virginia’s Emancipation Park, what you see is the pride of the South, then you’re missing what others see: the world’s most pathetic pissing contest. A monument, built in the Confederacy’s dying breath, in honor of an unjust cause. An apotheosis of hate.
Is there any benefit from these testaments? The Nazi concentration camps, preserved for future generations to walk in the footsteps of the doomed, are a grim and powerful example of a commemorative warning—a solemn shrine marking the horrors of ethnic zealotry and absolute power. But what you won’t find at the gates of Auschwitz is a statue of Adolf Fucking Hitler. Because that would be sick, and twisted, and spit in the face of those hurt most by the atrocities that took place there. Most of us understand this implicitly. Some of us, it seems, do not. For the latter group, here’s your reminder:
If you need a mascot, try a bulldog. If you need a hero, take a pass on the leaders of the Deep South. Maybe give a look to someone other than those figures who institutionalized the enslavement and, later, the systematic oppression of an entire subgroup of humans. Because, yes, the shadows of that shameful period in our history should be remembered. Just not celebrated.