If You See Something, Say Something

Confederate Flag Future

This weekend at a community celebration in white, small-town America, terrorist flags waved in the air. As children laughed and scampered about and people bought their glow sticks and funnel cakes, no one seemed to pay much attention to the symbols of evil the cart vendors pushed threw the crowd.

Of course I’m being deliberately provocative, but provocation can be a useful tool to awaken our deadened moral imaginations. Confederate flags at a community fair are evidence of cultural pathology. As far as I could discern, their presence stirred no resistance from the community.

I talked to one of the vendors pushing his little cart through the crowd. As best I can recall, the conversation went like this:

Me: “Hi, are these flags for sale?”

Vendor: “Yeah buddy, they’re $15 bucks, which one do you want?

Me: “No, I’m not going to buy one. I know you’re just doing your job, but this flag is wildly offensive.”

Vendor: “No it ain’t; I just sold one to a black woman down the street.”

Me: “Oh, really?” (It seemed a transparent lie, not least because there were almost no black people there)

Vendor: “It’s history. If you don’t know your history it might offend you.”

At that he rushed on, seeking to avoid engaging, and I declined to harass him further. (For the record, I’m a historian.)

About 15 minutes later he came through our section of the crowd again and the Confederate flag was gone. I assume someone bought it. But maybe, just maybe, he took it down.

If people in your community were waving ISIS flags you would notice. We need to reframe our understanding of how despicable confederate nostalgia is. There must be no tolerance for it in your community. Confront people lovingly and politely, but don’t remain silent and become complicit in their sin. If you see something, say something.

The American Historical Association Weighs In On The Confederate Monument Debate

portsmouth va
Confederate monument in Portsmouth, VA. Bill Tiernan, The Virgina-Pilot

The AHA has released a statement on the Confederate monument debate. It’s worth reading in full. It probably represents the closest thing we have to a historical consensus about these monuments. It also effectively explains why removing the monuments is not an erasure of history. Here it is:

The American Historical Association welcomes the emerging national debate about Confederate monuments. Much of this public statuary was erected without such conversations, and without any public decision-making process. Across the country, communities face decisions about the disposition of monuments and memorials, and commemoration through naming of public spaces and buildings. These decisions require not only attention to historical facts, including the circumstances under which monuments were built and spaces named, but also an understanding of what history is and why it matters to public culture.

President Donald Trump was correct in his tweet of August 16: “You can’t change history, but you can learn from it.” That is a good beginning, because to learn from history, one must first learn what actually happened in the past. Debates over removal of monuments should consider chronology and other evidence that provide context for why an individual or event has been commemorated. Knowledge of such facts enables debate that learns “from history.”

Equally important is awareness of what we mean by “history.” History comprises both facts and interpretations of those facts. To remove a monument, or to change the name of a school or street, is not to erase history, but rather to alter or call attention to a previous interpretation of history. A monument is not history itself; a monument commemorates an aspect of history, representing a moment in the past when a public or private decision defined who would be honored in a community’s public spaces.

Understanding the specific historical context of Confederate monuments in America is imperative to informed public debate. Historians who specialize in this period have done careful and nuanced research to understand and explain this context. Drawing on their expertise enables us to assess the original intentions of those who erected the monuments, and how the monuments have functioned as symbols over time. The bulk of the monument building took place not in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War but from the close of the 19th century into the second decade of the 20th. Commemorating not just the Confederacy but also the “Redemption” of the South after Reconstruction, this enterprise was part and parcel of the initiation of legally mandated segregation and widespread disenfranchisement across the South. Memorials to the Confederacy were intended, in part, to obscure the terrorism required to overthrow Reconstruction, and to intimidate African Americans politically and isolate them from the mainstream of public life. A reprise of commemoration during the mid-20th century coincided with the Civil Rights Movement and included a wave of renaming and the popularization of the Confederate flag as a political symbol. Events in Charlottesville and elsewhere indicate that these symbols of white supremacy are still being invoked for similar purposes.

To remove such monuments is neither to “change” history nor “erase” it. What changes with such removals is what American communities decide is worthy of civic honor. Historians and others will continue to disagree about the meanings and implications of events and the appropriate commemoration of those events. The AHA encourages such discussions in publications, in other venues of scholarship and teaching, and more broadly in public culture; historical scholarship itself is a conversation rooted in evidence and disciplinary standards. We urge communities faced with decisions about monuments to draw on the expertise of historians both for understanding the facts and chronology underlying such monuments and for deriving interpretive conclusions based on evidence. Indeed, any governmental unit, at any level, may request from the AHA a historian to provide consultation. We expect to be able to fill any such request.

We also encourage communities to remember that all memorials remain artifacts of their time and place. They should be preserved, just like any other historical document, whether in a museum or some other appropriate venue. Prior to removal they should be photographed and measured in their original contexts. These documents should accompany the memorials as part of the historical record. Americans can also learn from other countries’ approaches to these difficult issues, such as Coronation Park in Delhi, India, and Memento Park in Budapest, Hungary.

Decisions to remove memorials to Confederate generals and officials who have no other major historical accomplishment does not necessarily create a slippery slope towards removing the nation’s founders, former presidents, or other historical figures whose flaws have received substantial publicity in recent years. George Washington owned enslaved people, but the Washington Monument exists because of his contributions to the building of a nation. There is no logical equivalence between the builders and protectors of a nation—however imperfect—and the men who sought to sunder that nation in the name of slavery. There will be, and should be, debate about other people and events honored in our civic spaces. And precedents do matter. But so does historical specificity, and in this case the invocation of flawed analogies should not derail legitimate policy conversation.

Nearly all monuments to the Confederacy and its leaders were erected without anything resembling a democratic process. Regardless of their representation in the actual population in any given constituency, African Americans had no voice and no opportunity to raise questions about the purposes or likely impact of the honor accorded to the builders of the Confederate States of America. The American Historical Association recommends that it’s time to reconsider these decisions.

Defenders of Confederate Monuments Don’t Want To Think Historically

stone mountain
The granddaddy of them all. Stone Mountain, Georgia.

On the first day of class this semester, I’ll be introducing my students to the 5 C’s of Historical Thinking. Thomas Andrews and Flannery Burke developed this framework as a simple way to introduce students to some of what it means to think historically. One of the C’s is context.

Historians spend much of our energy trying to figure out context. We must understand past people and events in light of the totality of the circumstances around them: their culture, beliefs, economy, language, and more.

When we try to understand a specific source, a sentence needs to be read in light of the whole document, the document in light of other documents, those documents read in light of other factors, and so on.

It gets harder. The past is a foreign country. That means you can’t assume that words mean what you think they mean, that people thought the way you think, or even that the historical document you have sitting right in front of you isn’t giving you a misleading picture of the past.

It gets harder still. Think about all the things in your life, the subtle social cues, the idioms, the inside jokes, the norms, the kinds of clothes that will make you stand out and those that will make you blend in. Think about what is ingrained and intuitive. These things are so obvious to you that they don’t need to be said. Centuries from now, if historians want to understand our world, they will have to try to recover what is unsaid. And so do we as we look at the past.

But sometimes, a public controversy rages even when it’s relatively easy to understand the historical context. So it is with the debate over Confederate monuments. Though defenders of the monuments style themselves as protectors of history, they actually tend to be hostile toward historical inquiry.

If we actually want to explore historical context—that is, think historically—here are some questions we might ask:

Who built the monuments?

When?

Why?

Was the building of them part of any broader social or intellectual movement?

These are exactly the kinds of questions monument defenders don’t want to explore. Their reluctance to ask serious questions of the past tells us how much they really value history. If you’re interested in the answers to those questions there are lots of historians who have tried to inform the public debate.

Here are a few:

Jane Dailey

Adam Goodheart

Annette Gordon-Reed

Karen Cox

W. Fitzhugh Brundage

Preserving Monuments, Erasing History

namibia-monument

Over the weekend, the New York Times had a fascinating article about a statue in Namibia commemorating (yes, commemorating) Germany’s colonial genocide against the Herero and Nama over a century ago. Now, as some Namibians demand the statue’s removal, controversy has flared:

The push for the removal comes as the governments of Germany and Namibia are engaging in negotiations to close one of the grimmest chapters in Africa’s colonial history, the genocide of tens of thousands of Herero and Nama between 1904 and 1908. After decades of denial, German officials say they are ready to acknowledge the genocide formally, issue an apology and offer compensation.

German reticence is not the only reason the reckoning has taken so long. Namibia’s complicated internal dynamics have contributed as well. The Herero and Nama are minorities in a nation led since independence by the liberation party, the South West Africa People’s Organization, or Swapo, which is dominated by the Ovambo ethnic group. If Swapo has historically shown little interest in highlighting the colonial-era genocide, Namibia’s tiny but economically powerful German-speaking minority has shown strong resistance.

A desert city facing the Atlantic, Swakopmund is the center of Namibia’s German-speaking minority. It has what is perhaps the best collection of well-preserved colonial buildings in Africa, as well as a Bismarck Street and other thoroughfares named after German figures. Menus in hotels and restaurants are in German, catering to Namibia’s German minority as well as to German tourists.

The whole article is worth reading. Remembering the past—however we remember it—is a political act with contemporary significance. Historical narratives cannot be separated from the workings of power in the present. For some of Namibia’s German minority, an attack on the monument is an attack on their identity. If there is no place for the monument in modern Namibia, is there a place for them?

This brings to mind recent battles in the United States over Confederate monuments and the Confederate flag. One common argument in support of the monuments is that we must not “erase history.” This sounds reasonable on the surface but actually evades the real issue. Usually, the most ardent defenders of Confederate monuments are also the most committed to false historical narratives. Their myths and their identities have been shaped by these monuments. If they are taken down, more accurate historical narratives threaten to gain influence.

In Namibia, the German defenders of the monument are also the deniers of the genocide. They are trying to preserve an artifact of history precisely so that they might erase history. Provincial preservationism often works at cross-purposes with efforts to responsibly remember the past. Placing the monument in a museum would better serve both the narrow preservationist aim and the broader goal of historical accuracy.