Kevin Siers

The meanings and mutterings of Silent Sam

University of North Carolina’s Silent Sam statue
University of North Carolina’s Silent Sam statue File photo

You hear an indistinct muttering as you walk down the darkened halls of the secret storage facility. The voice becomes clearer as you approach a triple-locked door. Whoever is behind it is apparently having a conversation with himself:

“It’s not fair. It’s not my fault. People don’t seem to realize I’m not really a Confederate soldier. Heck, I’m not even Southern. I’m a Boston boy by birth. I was too young to have served in the war; I was just a gleam in the eye of the United Daughters of the Confederacy in 1907, and wasn’t unveiled at UNC until 1913. I don’t have any firsthand knowledge of the Civil War, but one can’t hang around a college campus for 105 years without picking a few things up.

“It was obvious from the start who UNC and the UDC wanted me to be. They wanted a representation of Southern patriotism and heritage. And I didn’t have to wait long to find out what ideals I was supposed to be patriotic about. North Carolina industrialist Julian Carr made that very clear in his infamous speech during my dedication ceremony. My supposed courage had apparently helped save the Anglo-Saxon race, and enabled Carr and his friends to continue to horse-whip and otherwise oppress blacks as they saw fit.

“They say it was all about heritage and states’ rights, but they conveniently ignore the specific state right they clung to and went to war over.

“I never thought those who protested my presence on campus were trying to erase history. They were more concerned with corrections than cancellations. But I became an ideal for them as well, especially recently. I no longer just represented misguided Southern belles’ memories of moonlight and magnolias and unchallenged white superiority. I became a totem of the whole oppressive ball of wax — not just Jim Crow, but Northern racism as well. Redlining, segregation, workplace discrimination — my existence not only sent an unwelcoming message to minorities on campus, but supposedly helped folks justify and ignore the continued nationwide injustice. Strike a blow against me and feel you’ve struck a blow against institutional racism. Topple me and you’re vicariously toppling that other bronze figure that tweets from the halls of the White House.

“So now I’ve acquired a face full of mud and new meaning once again. The Republicans in the legislature and the UNC Board of Governors see me as a symbol of power defied, as the rule of law trammeled and trampled. Their law and their power, naturally. The legislature made it almost impossible for an ‘object of remembrance’ (that’s me) to be removed from state property without its approval, and that wasn’t going to happen. Now they won’t rest until I’m back on my pedestal at McCorkle Place. And what will that solve? The lawmakers will feel their power is secure, for now, but won’t these events just keep repeating themselves?

“I heard somebody on campus say that whoever owns the square owns the story. I don’t know what book he got that from, but I feel it’s true. The old stories are collapsing under the weight of their falsehood, and new ones are being born. It’s a trying, frightening time, reminding me of the 1960s. And I thought things were bad when folks used me to joke about campus virgins.

“Should I return to McCorkle Place or be moved somewhere else? Should I stay here, locked away, until folks can finally agree as to what I really represent? I have my opinions on the subject, but I’m not getting in that soup. You know me. I’m not saying a word.”

Kevin Siers is the Observer’s editorial cartoonist.