The past isn’t even past, as the saying goes, and perhaps nowhere is that more apparent than in debates over monuments to the Confederacy. In his remarkable new book Down Along with That Devil’s Bones: A Reckoning with Monuments, Memory, and the Legacy of White Supremacy, Connor Towne O’Neill digs deep into the history of a particular subset of these monuments: those honoring Confederate general Nathan Bedford Forrest.
O’Neill’s book begins with a chance encounter with a “Friends of Forrest” group gathered around an empty pedestal in Selma, Alabama, and takes the reader to other monuments in Memphis, Murfreesboro and Nashville, Tennessee. It’s a fascinating and sobering look at the conflict that, in many ways, has never ended. As Kiese Laymon says in his endorsement, “O’Neill walks in that radical love tradition” of young people from the North helping to “exorcise the worst parts of our region.”
O’Neill will appear online as part of the Southern Festival of Books this Sunday, Oct. 11 at 2pm. In the meantime, read his interview below and get your copy of Down Along With That Devil’s Bones from our festival shop!
Rev. James Perkins, the first Black mayor of Selma, refers to the erection of a statue of Nathan Bedford Forrest there as a “pronouncement of war.” How do you see that war as it stands now?
That statue went up in 2000. For more than a decade a battle raged over where that statue should stand, whether that statue should stand, and what that statue meant. Then it was stolen in 2012. But that theft and the possibility of replacing the statue kicked off another heated battle. Eventually the “Friends of Forrest,” as the group who put up the statue call themselves, won a federal suit allowing them to replace the statue. The replacement statue stands to this day, with no recent movement on that front. Elsewhere, though, the battle rages. We just saw a summer of monument toppling, in which President Trump gave a July 4th speech, at the foot of Mount Rushmore, declaring the summer’s protests to be “the end of America” and in which the Department of Homeland Security is expanding surveillance on activities surrounding monument protests. As Selma goes, so goes the nation.
In the book, you quote Mary Singleton Slack, a Daughters of the Confederacy leader in Kentucky in 1916, as urging the like-minded to “build the greatest of all monuments, a thought monument.” Do you see this mindset at work today?
We hear the thought monument at work every time someone avows that “all lives matter” or advocates for “school choice.” We hear it when people refer to polices meant to address inequity as “handouts” while overlooking the massive government programs — from the Homestead Act to FHA loans — that have built white wealth while excluding Black Americans. We see it in the disproportionate deaths along racial lines from COVID-19. We see it every time the assumption of Black criminality leads to the extrajudicial killing of Black Americans at the hands of police officers. Any unwillingness to acknowledge the forces that structure American life to the benefit of white Americans — that’s the thought monument.
Throughout the book there is this argument about whether these monuments are simply symbolic. Do you have an opinion about whether it’s ultimately worth fighting over these monuments, spending energy that might be used in other ways?
Symbols matter. As one activist I interviewed for the book pointed out to me, “For us to have those things removed, I think articulates to us that other things are possible. That a more equitable city and a more equitable county and a more equitable state and country is possible.”
I think Confederate monuments serve as the other side of the coin to all the images documented in Henry Louis Gates’s book Stony The Road, demeaning depictions of Black Americans from the Reconstruction era that, Gates argues, planted ideas of black inferiority and inhumanity deep into white America’s psyche. The Confederate monuments start to go up at the same time, enshrining these traitors into the landscape and into the minds of passersby.
To your point, though, these battles are part of a larger fight. And nearly every activist I talked to was engaged in other protest work, too, from pro bono legal representation to community oversight of police precincts to resisting voter suppression. The symbols are there because the systems of power in each of these cities keeps them there. Activists know you can’t go after one without going after the other.
This happened after you were finished writing your book, but it would appear that the state of Tennessee is headed in the direction of removing the Nathan Bedford Forrest bust from the state capitol. Having witnessed similar removal battles, and knowing quite a bit about the state Historical Commission, do you have any sense of how this might end? Or have you made yourself take a (deserved) break from following these stories?
I’ve been following that story and, honestly, I’m not optimistic. The Tennessee Historical Commission has rejected all three of the appeals to remove Forrest symbolism that have come before the body. Maybe it will be different this time. I suppose it’s possible that the commission may be chastened. After the Historical Commission twice denied the City of Memphis permission to remove their statue of Forrest the city then found a way to remove it anyway. So, after that, the commission may decide to simplify things and just grant a waiver. It would be, even at this eleventh hour, the just thing to do. On the other hand, state legislators were recently seen posing for selfies in front of the Forrest bust so, like I said, I’m not optimistic.
You grew up in Pennsylvania, not Alabama, but you find yourself implicated in this story in an interesting way. Can you talk about that a bit?
The prevailing wisdom growing up was that racism, in so far as it was a problem at all, was a problem of hearts and minds and that it was only a problem “down there.” But digging into the history embedded in these four monuments, I came to see how race was and is used in America to hoard wealth and resources and opportunities for white people, North and South.
Before embarking on this book, frankly I hadn’t spent much time reckoning with the ways that race shapes our lives, from how we buy houses to how we zone and fund our schools to how we’re served (or not served) by police officers. To come to that understanding, it took moving to the South and immersing myself in the central unresolved question of the Civil War: Could a settler-slaver society transform itself into a multi-racial democracy? It’s a question we’re still grappling with and a question that we all have a stake in.
And finally, we always ask: What do you love about bookstores?
I love the atmosphere created by bookstores. They’re hives of imagination. I love standing in the shelves and thinking about all the creative energy and all the knuckle-biting work that goes into producing a single book. And reading just one of them could expand your horizons, introduce you to new ideas, love you, terrify you, see you, change you. And there are so many of them! It’s almost too much to bear sometimes. It’s like being in a gallery of possibility. I love them so much. I’m grateful for all you do.
This is part of our Southern Festival of Books preview series. See our interview with Cinelle Barnes, editor of A Measure of Belonging, and Authors in Real Life featuring C. Pam Zhang, author of How Much of These Hills Is Gold!