Wednesday, August 16, 2017
Media Talking Points From A Scholar Of Historical Memory
My dissertation was about historical memory, and I have written plenty of scholarship and taught classes about it. For that reason, it is extremely irritating to look at the discourse around the removal of Confederate monuments and not see any scholars of memory featured prominently in the media. Since I won't be asked to go on CNN, here are some handy talking points you can use in your conversations with other folks.
Monuments are about creating a "usable past."
Folks who are in the middle seem most convinced by the argument that taking down these monuments is somehow "denying history" or "eliminating history." It is easy to understand why this argument appeals to (white) people with a low-stakes interest in this issue, but it doesn't hold water. Monuments as part of public memory are an attempt to create a "usable past." They are a way to create an interpretation of the past that is given an official stamp of approval. This is why you don't see massive public monuments celebrating emancipation in this country, but plenty of them in Caribbean nations where the population is mostly black.
Confederate monuments created a white supremacist usable past.
Other people have written about this, but it bears repeating: the vast majority of Civil War monuments in the South were built during the height of Jim Crow. They were not immediate responses to the war. They are also intended to push a certain interpretation of the war, the "Lost Cause." This narrative essentially said that the white South was the superior side fighting for a just cause, and only lost due to the material superiority of the Union. These monuments defended the old slaveocracy at a time when lynchings and other incidents of racial violence were accelerating. By being erected after Reconstruction and during Jim Crow, they are not mourning a defeat in the Civil War, but actually celebrating the victory of white supremacy in its aftermath. Context matters.
There is plenty of precedent for tearing down monuments.
This is something we know, but it bears repeating. The same people today saying that tearing down Confederate monuments is "destroying history" did not complain when statues of Lenin and Stalin were eliminated during the revolutions in the Eastern Bloc. Those monuments were symbols of hated, repressive regimes. The same goes for Confederate monuments. They are the symbols of white supremacy. Hell, American colonists in New York famously tore down a statue of King George III, and melted it into cannon balls. This event was celebrated in my history textbooks in school. No one seems to be crying any tears over the loss of that statue. We are not bound to the usable pasts created by people who lived a hundred years ago.
We should view this moment as a time for positive change.
While it is good to tear down monuments to white supremacy, we should be thinking about the usable pasts of this country that would be preferable. For example, Union monuments built in the North were also built during a time of intense white supremacy. While these monuments obviously do not celebrate the defense of slavery, they rarely, if ever, mention it. This is due to the "reunionist" feeling at the time where the memory of the Civil War eliminated its political causes, and instead the reuniting of the country was emphasized. Of course, this meant erasing African Americans from this history, and essentially accept a reunited nation for white people only. In North and South we need more public memory of slavery, and the role of slavery in the Civil War. We should use this moment to create a usable past that is more inclusive and more honest about this country's history.