Opinion Extra

USC music teacher reflects on Confederate monuments with new composition

My middle name is a Confederate monument. My great-grandfather was given the Kirkland middle name by his father, who was a confederate soldier who served, at some point, in the North Carolina divisions under General William Whedbee Kirkland. The name became a family middle name, one which I share with my great-grandfather, father, a great uncle, two cousins, and my son.

“My middle name is a Confederate monument” looped in my brain for weeks following the Charlottesville protests and attacks in 2017. Is my name a monument? How do I find pride in a name that evokes (albeit obscured) the history of slavery? What can I, a privileged, cis, hetero, white classical music composer from the South, do to contribute meaningfully to this debate? Is there a way for my Euro-American perspective to be an asset instead of an extremely problematic crutch? How do I make art centered around the horrific history of the South without following in the long line of white male composers’ appropriation of other cultures?

I have created a composition about Confederate monuments, a piece that the UofSC wind ensemble with conductor Scott Weiss featuring mezzo-soprano Rachel Calloway will premiere at the Koger Center on Sunday, March 31, at 4 p.m.

“Red hot sun turning over: on southern monuments, myths, and histories,” a concert-length multimedia piece for winds, mezzo-soprano, and archival sound and film. Using music, sounds, and images from the Civil War era and the early 20th century, the music erects monuments and tears them down, unearths the complex web of Southern myths, and confronts the nostalgia and pain surrounding Confederate monuments in the South. This nostalgia is at times warm and restorative and at times reflective and critical and explores the idea that problematic people and events can create beautiful art while examining the razor-thin emotional line between nostalgia and trauma.

We desperately need to make art with, about, and around Confederate monuments and the history of white supremacy to confront and expose the South’s dark, yet still present, past. With legislative stalemates seemingly preventing action on the removal and/or contextualization of Confederate monuments in many parts of the South, we need to change the public discourse, and there is no more powerful argument than that of artistic expression and experience.

We need to tear down monuments to the Confederacy and deplorable figures like J. Marion Sims, whose bust sits on the state capitol grounds. We need to contextualize monuments to the lost cause myth. We need to make new monuments and memorials to the history of slavery and oppression. We — especially privileged white Southerners — need to take up this fight and study closely our forefathers and the institutionalized racism that is baked into our government.

I hope this project will spark curiosity in listeners to investigate the history of Confederate monuments in the South and take action to aid in the efforts to remove or accurately contextualize them and also to create new memorials to white atrocities, slavery, reconstruction, and Jim Crow laws that tell a more complete story of the South. I hope this project will spark new artistic work based on these monuments. We need to create a forest of art around these monuments to overshadow these towering stone memorials. Let’s not let another red hot South Carolina sun turn over on the state capitol grounds in Columbia, S.C., without action.

Please visit the project website to learn more about the project at davidkirklandgarner.com.

Editor’s note: Sunday’s performance at the Koger Center is free and open to the public. It begins at 4 p.m.

David Kirkland Garner is an assistant professor of composition and theory at the University of South Carolina School of Music.
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