By Diane McDaniel Rhodes
There was a total eclipse of the sun the first day it was possible to walk around the South Mall without encountering a civil war monument. I’m not much one for coincidence. As Sherlock said, “the universe is rarely so lazy.”
There has been debate about monuments honoring Confederate leaders of the U.S. Civil War. Discerning the meaning of these monuments has been divisive and more recently has become downright disputed. UT Austin has a complicated history around the marginalization of African Americans. As long as I can recall, the Civil War monuments standing on the South Mall as “heroes” were an issue of conflict. People asked what difference it makes. I didn’t know what difference it would make until they were gone.
My experience being Black on this campus has always been complicated. Being a third generation Ph.D., daughter of state leaders, and having relative wealth doesn’t mean I earned inclusion. My dad taught here for over 40 years. He had a speech about the statues, “At the beginning of every school year I walk around the campus. And I walk down the South Mall. I don’t pay any attention to those statues there. They are just pieces of stone that some stupid people worship. Never once has one of those statues stopped me from going to the library. If they did, I would be pissed. I would be really angry. But they don’t. You cannot let something like those pieces of stone stop you from being who you want to be.” When he spoke about the statues there was humor in his tone, mock lecture
laced with crisp bitterness.
I first stepped on campus as the 12-year-old daughter of a new assistant professor. I went to summer camp, competed in theater contests, and got my bachelor’s degree here. My kids went to camp here. I got my Ph.D. here. I teach here. I can’t estimate how many times I walked up and down, past or around the South Mall. I walked past the Civil War monuments, the grass, the shady oak trees, and students and visitors sprawled on the lawn in the sun.
Monday, August 21st, I woke to national fanfare anticipating the total eclipse of the sun and news that the remaining Civil War monuments on the South Mall had been removed. I walked to the South Mall to see the space without the statues. And I realized the mall is lovely and inviting, a thought I’d never registered before. Despite all the time spent on those sidewalks, I never sat on the mall to read, talk with friends, or once in 40 years used the space for enjoyment. I was stunned. I took a seat on a bench to take in fresh awareness. I couldn’t recall ever thinking “I can’t sit here in front of those statues.” There was no concise decision to not sit, not in my conscious mind. But finding a comfortable place on campus to enjoy never included the grassy South Mall shade. And suddenly it did. Does.
So, Dad, I agree; those pieces of stone never stopped me from going to class or the library. They didn’t stop me from getting my education; however, they held a space reserved for my exclusion by cherishing conquest and capture. Without them there is suddenly a new space I can choose belonging. Othering matters. I saw the eclipse of the sun and the South Mall. Ask me again what difference it makes. Now I know.
Diane McDaniel Rhodes, Ph.D., is a lecturer at the Steve Hicks School of Social Work.