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UNC grad student on the misuse of Classics in support of Silent Sam

A view of the base of the Silent Sam statue after UNC graduate student Maya Little covered it with red paint and her own blood.

When UNC History student Maya Little was arrested last month and charged with defacing the Silent Sam Confederate monument,  students and faculty in her department expressed their support for her.

Now graduate students in the UNC Classics Department have done the same.

In an essay this week for the Society of Classical Studies, UNC graduate student Kelly McArdle talks about the Little’s case, the history of Silent Sam and the way in which the history and context of the statue has been distorted. She writes about the monument’s notorious dedication speech made by prominent UNC alumn, prominent industrialist and white supremacist Julian Carr and the way in which it drew on classical themes to justify and romanticize the Confederacy – and what that perception means today.

From her piece:

As students of antiquity, we who signed the statement understand the value of preserving historical monuments and artifacts, but we also believe that those monuments and artifacts must be grounded in historical events and eras, rather than being presented as unbiased memorials of the past. Historian and UNC professor Lloyd Kramer recently wrote in response to the “Silent Sam” controversy, “Monuments convey historical interpretations rather than historical facts.” We agree that “Silent Sam” conveys a particular interpretation of southern history. Given that Carr both lauded the Confederate preservation of “the purest strain of the Anglo Saxon” race in the South and bragged about the fact that he himself “horse-whipped a negro wench” 100 yards from where “Silent Sam” stands, we who signed the statement believe the statue conveys a historical interpretation that glorifies the subjugation of black people. By allowing “Silent Sam” to remain in a prominent position on our campus, the university administration allows that interpretation to take precedence over historical fact. As Little wrote in an open letter to UNC Chancellor Carol Folt:

“Today I have thrown my blood and red ink on this statue as a part of the continued mission to provide the context that the Chancellor refuses to. Chancellor Folt, if you refuse to remove the statue, then we will continue to contextualize it. Silent Sam is violence; Silent Sam is the genocide of black people; Silent Sam is antithetical to our right to exist. You should see him the way that we do, at the forefront of our campus covered in our blood.”

We who signed the statement stand in full support of Maya Little’s’s forcible contextualization of “Silent Sam,” which shows the monument for what it truly is: a vestige of and shrine to white supremacy. As long as “Silent Sam” remains on campus, it will necessarily lack the contextual information needed for viewers to understand the circumstances of its dedication and its intended meaning. We believe we must continue to provide that context until the university administration relocates the statue.

Moving forward, we who signed the statement plan to continue speaking out about “Silent Sam” and institutional racism on our campus, including the 16-year moratorium on renaming campus buildings, many of which are named for Confederate supporters and white supremacists. We are committed to defending Maya Little, using our expertise in the study and preservation of the ancient world to show that her action was a dedicated historian’s necessary response to a white-washed version of history. We are glad to have the continued support of our faculty in this endeavor. Our hope is to see “Silent Sam” moved to a local museum or historical site, such as UNC’s Ackland Art Museum or the Bentonville Battlefield State Historic Site, where future historians and proper signage can provide visitors with the statue’s proper context. Such a gesture would be only the beginning of acknowledging and rectifying the racist legacy of our university. Our continued involvement also speaks to our desire to rectify part of the legacy of our discipline. We hope always to learn from the past, but never to romanticize it.

Read the whole essay here.

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