It’s hard to be mad at the neighbor you don’t know when both of you and everyone else are wearing goofy glasses and looking skyward. That was America in the grip of eclipse-mania, when people who may not have had one thing or opinion in common gathered in common spaces to be transfixed and transformed.
Maybe it was the reality that there is something, a universe, greater than all of us — and all you can do is give in to the majesty. For those few minutes and the days leading up to them, scientists, as unlikely as it seems, were kings. The kind of educated folks whose findings on everything from climate change to the effects of pollution have been disparaged and disputed were the experts, featured on news shows for perhaps the first and only time in their lives.
The country went dark on Monday, and the brightest of lights — a sort of national unity — shone through. The chattiest of pundits were rendered speechless. And whatever it was, it was grand, though it lasted just a few minutes, and though the magic disappeared when gazes turned back to earth.
That disappointing American reality was all too evident in a striking scene captured in Sylva, North Carolina, by Roll Call photographer Tom Williams, who traveled to be in the eclipse’s path of totality. The image showed a man in a welding mask, enjoying his eclipse-worthy moment, sharing space with and touching a Confederate monument in front of the Old Jackson County Courthouse — commemorating a public space devoted to justice that, in the past, provided many North Carolinians with anything but.
The statue, like so many others dotting the South, in particular, is of a Confederate infantryman standing at parade rest on a base featuring a faded Confederate battle flag. The inscription reads: “Our heroes of the Confederacy.”
And just like that, we’ve crashed back to earth — in this case, to North Carolina, the state I call home most of the time, which is in the middle of its own Confederate monument moment, with battle lines being drawn in a version of a modern Civil War while many are still fighting the last one.
It’s a battle our president and other politicians have joined, over the issue of who is allowed to tell and be a part of America’s history, and who can be a part of building its future. The setting of that photo was ironic, as it was taken in a space where those with perhaps the most legitimate standing to tell that history, the Cherokee Nation, have not been heard in the current discussion.
Would that the president were still standing on the White House balcony squinting at the sky, wearing the glasses an aide reminded him to don. Instead, he traveled to a Tuesday night rally in Phoenix, where his speech that hit all the divisive fault lines, from Charlottesville, Virginia, and its aftermath to media-blaming to the possibility of pardoning a former sheriff found guilty of criminal contempt for racial profiling to yes, those Confederate monuments.
“They’re trying to take away our culture,” he said of his critics and the media. “They are trying to take away our history. And our weak leaders, they do it overnight. These things have been there for 150 years, for 100 years. You go back to a university, and it’s gone. Weak, weak people.”
Across the country from Phoenix, at the campus of one of those universities, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, hundreds of protesters gathered around the statue of “Silent Sam.” Sam — “in memory of the Chapel Hill boys, who left college, 1861-1865 and joined our Southern Army in defense of our State” — may be silent, but his presence speaks volumes about where we are as a country when we don’t have a celestial event to enthrall us.
In North Carolina, with a law signed by former Republican Gov. Pat McCrory that prevents any removal of such monuments without approval from a state historical commission, Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper has said that he favors finding out how much it will cost to remove the monuments and relocate them to places where they can be “studied in context.”
In a state that reluctantly entered the Civil War, with a fair amount of whites and blacks who fought for the union but who don’t have too many monuments honoring their patriotic contributions, Sam is more than a symbol.
When Trump says “our” history, “our” culture, one is forced to recall exactly what was said by Confederate Civil War veteran Julian Carr, who at the dedication of the statue in 1913, years after the war ended, lauded the Confederate Army as the saviors “of the Anglo Saxon race in the South” and recalled “horse-whipp[ing] a negro wench until her skirts hung in shreds” for offending a Caucasian woman.
This history and culture should never be forgotten, and it won’t be, as long as there are books and museums and graveyards. But in a public space, is this version of history worthy of being placed on a pedestal?
Republicans and Democrats in North Carolina and beyond, with few exceptions and with occasional pleas for nuance, after Monday’s otherworldly event, have come down to earth on opposite sides, looking back as they seek to define America’s past and present, and lead us into the future.
The next eclipse hits the country in 2024. I wonder if we can make it till then.
Roll Call columnist Mary C. Curtis has worked at The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun, The Charlotte Observer and as national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter @mcurtisnc3.