American culture doesn’t need to be honored when it’s awful

The General P. G. T. Beauregard Equestrian Statue in New Orleans, Louisiana. The statue was removed in May, 2017. Shutterstock

The Southern Poverty Law Center found a current total of 1,503 Confederate-related symbols across the United States, including monuments and statues, public schools, military bases, counties and cities. Six states have official Confederate holidays.

Under increasingly intensive pressure, South Carolina led the way in 2015 by removing the Confederate flag from the State House grounds where it had hung since 1962. Other cities slowly and often reluctantly followed suit.

Those on the other side of the issue who demand retaining these monuments and symbols argue “tradition” since they are a part of their “heritage,” and they represent an era of American history.

Most certainly, these monuments and symbols represent “tradition,” but a tradition worth remembering only as shameful eras in our national story, and not to romanticize or admire.

These symbols inspire people to violence while for many others, they bring to the surface a legacy of oppression and pain.

Under the guise of preserving “tradition,” proponents of keeping Confederate symbolism fail to realize that most of the monuments were erected well after the Civil War toward the end of the 19th– and into the 20th-century. Southerners imposed these monuments primarily as a weapon of intimidation against black people in the Jim Crow South.

While entire social movements have developed to redress the misdirected “honoring” of historic names, statues, flags, and other symbols on the national level, much work and organizing still needs to occur to redress grievances on the local level as well.

What follows offers a prime example.

“What’s in a name?,” the Bard asked in his timeless classic “Romeo and Juliet.” “That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”

Yes, and while this holds true for Romeo Montague and for roses, the town that hosts the University of Massachusetts at Amherst could find a much sweeter smelling namesake to honor!

The town took its name from Lord Jeffrey Amherst, the Commander-in-Chief of British forces during the French & Indian War. For Amherst’s victorious service in appropriating Canada for the British realm, King George III rewarded Amherst with 20,000 acres of confiscated Indian land in New York State.

Amherst’s brutal military methods against indigenous populations included germ warfare and other tactics forever branded in the annals of shame and infamy.

For example, referring to an uprising against British forces led by Chief Pontiac of the Ottawa nation, historian Carl Waldman wrote, “Captain Simeon Ecuyer had bought time by sending smallpox-infected blankets and handkerchiefs to the Indians surrounding the fort — an early example of biological warfare — which started an epidemic among them. Amherst himself had encouraged this tactic in a letter to Ecuyer.”

In addition, Amherst, on another occasion in a letter to Colonel Henry Bouquet, wrote, “Could it not be contrived to send the Small Pox among those disaffected tribes of Indians? We must on this occasion use every stratagem in our power to reduce them.”

Amherst continued in a postscript to Bouquet in a letter dated July 16, 1763 referring to his Indian enemies: “…to try Every other method that can serve to Extirpate this Execrable Race.” Amherst’s letters also discussed the use of dogs to hunt Indians, the so-called “Spaniard’s Method,” but, alas, he was not able to implement this plan due to a shortage of hounds.

On the other hand, though he opposed the French as well during the war, Amherst had no apparent inhumane disregard for the French, but rather saw them as his “worthy” enemy. It was the Indians who drove him mad. It was they against whom he was looking for “an occasion, to extirpate them root and branch.”

How ironic that the great seal of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst profiles the image of an Indian. This so-called “honoring” of Native Americans by the cultural descendants of Lord Jeffrey Amherst and others who engaged in the genocide of First Nations people strikes as hypocrisy at best.

So does honoring men who died fighting to divide our country and uphold slavery.

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