Religious Life

Monuments, Memory and Meaning

Monuments, Memory and Meaning
27 Iyar 5778 | May 12, 2018
Rabbi Alexander Davis

Repeat after me: Bde Maka Ska.

As many of you know, this is the Native American name for what most of us call Lake Calhoun.

I remember hearing that Lake Calhoun’s name was officially changed last January. But I have to admit that I didn’t pay too close attention to it. I wasn’t interested in the PC police. And besides, it is really hard to say. So I said to myself, “I don’t care what the sign says, I am gonna call it Lake Calhoun.”

Recently, however, I had an experience that made me rethink my approach. And since we are heading towards summer when we’ll spend time by the lakes, I thought it was important for us to consider this morning.

Last week, I traveled with a group of Beth El folks down to Charleston, South Carolina and Savannah, Georgia. It was a wonderful trip. In addition to the warm friendships and warm weather, these are two fun and fascinating cities to visit especially for Jews. Charleston and Savannah are two of America’s oldest Jewish communities. And so it was moving to see a Jewish cemetery with gravestones from the revolutionary war. It was exciting to see the oldest Torah scroll in America, one from the 14th century brought over by immigrants to Savannah in 1733.  It was inspiring to see the commitment of Jews in small towns working hard to keep their shuls alive.

We took in the wonderful architecture and experienced southern hospitality. But this morning I find myself drawn to the story of Calhoun. John C. Calhoun was a South Carolina statesman who served as the state’s senator and as Vice President to John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson. Though he died in 1850 before the Civil War, his views that slavery represented a “positive good” that benefited slaves and slave owners alike remained influential when Southern states seceded from the Union in 1860 leading to the Civil War.

Our tour group first encountered Calhoun in Charleston where he towers over the city’s downtown park, Marion Square. Originally a parade ground for the army, the park is now full of Frisbee players, homeless people and a number of memorials. Erected in 1896, a bronze Calhoun statue rests atop a 115 foot granite column and has Calhoun looking down on the city. It stands immediately adjacent to the city’s holocaust memorial which was established in 1999 with no thought given to the striking juxtaposition.

Driving along Calhoun Street past the statue, our tour guide told us that Charlestonians love their memorials, even the Confederate ones. They don’t take them down. Instead, they prefer to add additional signs to give greater context to the person. The additional sign slated for the Calhoun statue is stuck in committee in a storm of controversy over the wording. This is the proposed language:

This monument to John C. Calhoun erected in 1896, was the culmination of efforts begun in 1858 to commemorate his career. It was erected at a time, after Reconstruction, when most white South Carolinians believed in white supremacy, and the state enacted legislation establishing racial segregation. These ideas are now universally condemned.

Calhoun served as Vice-President of the United States under two presidents, as U.S. Secretary of War, as U.S. Secretary of State, as a U.S. Senator from South Carolina and as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives. A political theorist, he was the author of two important works on the U.S. Constitution and the Federal Government. A member of the Senate’s “Great Triumvirate,” which included Daniel Webster of Massachusetts and Henry Clay of Kentucky, Calhoun championed states’ rights and nullification, the right of an individual state to invalidate a federal law which it viewed as unconstitutional.

Unlike many of the founding fathers, who viewed the enslavement of Africans as “a necessary evil” possibly to be overcome, Calhoun defended the institution of race-based slavery as a “positive good.” The statue remains standing today as a reminder that many South Carolinians once viewed Calhoun as worthy of memorialization even though his political positions included his support of race-based slavery, an institution repugnant to the core ideas and values of the United States of America.

Historic preservation, to which Charleston is dedicated, includes this monument as a lesson to future generations of the importance of historical context when examining individuals and events in our state’s past.

Our encounter with Calhoun in Savannah was far less nuanced. Calhoun Square is a beautiful green park with majestic oak trees and surrounded by historic homes built in Greek Revival style. It was laid out in 1851 and served many purposes including, ironically, as a mass burial ground for slaves.

When our tour guide began to tell us about Calhoun, we stopped her saying we know all about him. We told her about the Lake Calhoun controversy. To which she scoffed saying, “everyone at the time owned slaves.” For a person who prides herself as a historian, I’d call that willful ignorance. But then she asked the question: “So what’s the name of the lake?” To which I said, “Bahh-something or other. I don’t know. It’s really hard to say.”

So here I was a self-righteous northerner. I had taken pride feeling that my assumptions about the South had been confirmed. “See, they haven’t reconciled with their past. But we’ve got it figured out.”  And now suddenly here I was, too lazy to learn how to say the name of the lake and largely ignorant of the Native American population that originally dwelled on this land.

Bde Maka Ska. The name means White Earth Lake. It was used by the Dakota people before federal surveyors renamed the lake in the early 1800s in recognition of Calhoun’s role in establishing Fort Snelling. The move to change the name gained new traction in 2015 just after a white supremacist killed nine black church goers and set off a national debate about the use of the confederate flag. That shooting took place in Charleston’s Emanual AME church which not coincidentally is located on Calhoun Street just a block from the Calhoun monument.

You see, it is not hard to connect the dots. The language we use matters. The names we use matter. The memorials we make and venerate matter. The flags and symbols we use matter. They shape how we think. Monuments matter because they shape memory. But it is not just a matter of getting our history right. It is about our future.

As proud Zionists we know this well. We understand the importance of the names we use. It’s why some people say Yehuda v’Shomron, Judea and Samaria rather than Occupied Territories- because it speaks to our indigenous ties to the Land. It says that we are natives of the Land. It is why we raise objections when the Temple Mount is referred to only as Haram esh-Sharif in Arabic and not Har Habayit in Hebrew because we understand what it means to have our history erased.

And it’s for that same reason that we should call it Bde Maka Ska instead of or at least in addition to Lake Calhoun. (Today, official signs around the lake use both names.) Because to use the Dakota name is to recognize that a people has lived here for centuries. It is to give them the honor they deserve. It is to say to their descendants that they matter, their history matters, their presence here matters, their culture and contributions matter. And that truth makes possible a future that is more enriching for all Minnesotans.

Bryan Stevenson knows this well. Stevenson, a lawyer, social justice activist and author of Just Mercy was the inspiration and driver behind the new National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama. Inspired by his visit to the Holocaust Museum in DC and the holocaust memorial in Berlin, Stevenson created a powerful memorial for the nearly 4400 African Americans brutally lynched on America’s soil.  He did so, he said not because he wants to dredge up old history but to liberate America. In his words, “I think that truth and reconciliation are sequential. You’ve got to first tell the truth about what happened and then you can begin to understand what is required to recover, to make repairs, to restore, to reconcile.”

We must be honest with our past for the sake of our future…which brings me at long last to our parasha. You knew I’d get there at some point.

We read in our parasha a series of curses about wild beasts, drought and disease and more. One curse is worth reading slowly and aloud: “Those of you who survive the other curses shall be heartsick over the iniquities of your fathers with you v’hanisharim bakhem yimaku… b’avonot avotam itam” (Lev. 26:39)

The verse is saying that children should be punished for the sins of their fathers. At first glance, this flies in the face of other passages in the Torah that state just the opposite. Rashi explains the discrepancy pointing out the significance of one word, “itam, with them:” “When the sins of the fathers are with them, with the children, that is, when the children continue to sin like their parents, then they shall be punished.”

I want to suggest another way to understand the verse. Even if we have stopped the iniquities of our ancestors, their sins can remain itanu, with us. The reverberations of actions for good and for bad affect later generations.

What are we to do in that case? The verse continues, “and they shall confess their sins “and the sins of their fathers v’hitvadu et avonam v’et avon avotam.” This is the source of the Yom Kippur vidui when we say, “aval anachu v’avoteinu chatanu but we and our ancestors sinned.” It is not enough to recite the acrostic that immediately follows, “ashamnau, bagadnu, gazalnu, dibarnu dofi.” It means telling the truth, admitting our wrongs, owning our history, the good and the bad. It means acknowledging that this isn’t a problem of a few states. It’s an issue of the United States.

Names and monuments are just one part, one important first step in that process of vidui and tshuva. It is not about punishment for the past. It is for the sake of our Nation’s future.

To paraphrase Bryan Stevenson: “when we tell the truth, when we change the iconography of the American landscape and change the narrative that burdens us, we will find ourselves more liberated from a history that has condemned us, scared us, bruised us and we will get to something that feels more like freedom, we will achieve something that feels more like justice.”

Keyn yehi ratzon. So may it be God’s will. Amen.