Questions To Ask Before Saying, “He Was A Man of His Time.”

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“Don’t mess with Woodrow!” says area man.

This morning someone found out I am a historian and it took about 2 minutes for the conversation to go off the rails. I was informed that Woodrow Wilson was a “man of his time” and can’t be judged by today’s standards. I was also informed that people agitating to rename buildings are “erasing history.”

I didn’t bring up any of this, I promise! Who knew that people are so invested in the memory of Woodrow Wilson?

I can hold my tongue. It wasn’t the time or place to try to add nuance to this person’s views. It obviously didn’t occur to him that I, as a historian, might have some considered thoughts about these matters. But I’ll speak up here. Before you say, “He was a man of his time” (and it’s almost always a he, isn’t it?) here are some questions to ask yourself:

How well do I know the “time” of which I speak? How do I know what it was actually like?

Who disagreed with this “man of his time”? Why did they disagree?

What was the range of views on the subject at the time?

What ideas and choices were available to this individual that he chose to reject?

Why did other similarly situated people make different choices at the time?

It is ahistorical, and arguably unjust, to judge people of the past by standards they could not possibly conceive of. But when we actually become acquainted with past eras, we tend to find that people were well aware of alternatives, but chose to reject them.

Woodrow Wilson didn’t segregate the federal government because he was a man of his time. He did it because he didn’t agree with those who thought black people should be on an equal footing in the American polity. His actions were criticized. He rejected the criticism. It’s perverse to honor the people who were on the wrong side of a consequential debate at the time. When we put a new name on the building we’re not getting up on a high horse claiming to be better than people in the past. We’re honoring the people who got it right at the time.

The “man of his time” argument is most often used in the context of debates about monuments and memorialization. This is odd because it’s in this context that the argument so obviously falls flat. The idea is that these guys were normal human beings, with faults like we all have, so we shouldn’t judge them too harshly. Ok, fine, let’s treat them like other normal people! Am I going to get my name on a building for being a replacement level human? Or should we reserve those places of honor for people who actually did really courageous and commendable things?

It is not hard to understand the difference between honoring and remembering. When you get a street named after you, it’s an honor. When you’re in a museum, you’re being remembered, but it might not be an honor. Sorry folks, Wilson is better museum material than street material.

History Matters: Remember Well

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A roundup of some recent history matters to remind us that history matters (ha, see what I did there?):

1. A new study puts data to what I’ve emphasized for the past couple of years: many Americans received “Make America Great Again” as a religious message promising renewal for a Christian nation. The study finds that belief that America is a Christian nation was a significant predictor of support for Trump in 2016:

Why did Americans vote for Donald Trump in the 2016 Presidential election? Social scientists have proposed a variety of explanations, including economic dissatisfaction, sexism, racism, Islamophobia, and xenophobia. The current study establishes that, independent of these influences, voting for Trump was, at least for many Americans, a symbolic defense of the United States’ perceived Christian heritage. Data from a national probability sample of Americans surveyed soon after the 2016 election shows that greater adherence to Christian nationalist ideology was a robust predictor of voting for Trump, even after controlling for economic dissatisfaction, sexism, anti-black prejudice, anti-Muslim refugee attitudes, and anti-immigrant sentiment, as well as measures of religion, sociodemographics, and political identity more generally. These findings indicate that Christian nationalist ideology—although correlated with a variety of class-based, sexist, racist, and ethnocentric views—is not synonymous with, reducible to, or strictly epiphenomenal of such views. Rather, Christian nationalism operates as a unique and independent ideology that can influence political actions by calling forth a defense of mythological narratives about America’s distinctively Christian heritage and future.

As I’ve argued before, much of white evangelicalism’s racism is rooted in these flawed understandings of the past.

2. Speaking of flawed historical narratives, here’s a fascinating profile of a leading Chinese historian trying to grapple with the history of the Chinese Communist Party’s murderous policies:

Shen Zhihua, bon vivant, former businessman, now China’s foremost Cold War historian, has set himself a near-impossible task. He wants China to peel back its secrets, throw open its archives and tell its citizens what went on between China and the United States, between China and North Korea, and much more.

Even before the hard-line era of President Xi Jinping, the Communist Party has acted like a supersensitive corporation, blocking highly regarded historians like Mr. Shen from peering too deeply. Precious documents have been destroyed, stolen or kept under seal by librarians skilled at deflecting the inquiries of even the most tenacious researchers.

“Chinese leaders have historical baggage,” Mr. Shen, who will turn 68 next month, said over a glass of white wine at a handsome villa hidden behind a high wall in the heart of Beijing. His tousled graying hair, casual jacket and open-necked shirt depart sharply from the buttoned-down party look.

“The party was popular, but after 1949 the party made a lot of mistakes: land reform, the Cultural Revolution, the Great Leap Forward. People might ask: ‘Since you have made so many mistakes, why are you still in power?’ ”

The party is unnecessarily nervous, he argues. “If you look at Chinese history, none can replace the Communist Party. Most of the elite is in the party. The party shouldn’t worry about being challenged. If I was running the propaganda department, I would say: ‘Those mistakes were made in the past, not now, and we need to learn from our mistakes.’ ”

“Chinese leaders have historical baggage” is the understatement of the century. We’re talking about deliberately covering up and avoiding accountability for mass murder, for tens of millions of pointless deaths of their own citizens. The Chinese Communist Party’s lack of openness about its past is deeply concerning for the future.

3. Michael Kimmelman profiles the proposed International African American Museum in Charleston, at the site of the entry point for most of the enslaved people brought to North America. The museum has been a long time coming and is still struggling to raise private funds and public money from a recalcitrant South Carolina legislature:

State Representative Brian White, a Republican who heads South Carolina’s House Ways and Means Committee, is one of those holding the money back. The museum “is not a state project and we have a lot of state needs right now that far outweigh a municipality’s request,” he recently told the Greenville News, citing competing priorities like education.

Bobby Hitt, South Carolina’s commerce secretary, by contrast, has pointed out that the museum will help attract businesses to the state. It adds a work of architectural dignity. And as for educational value, plainly it fills a gap.

“This ain’t a black project,” as Bakari Sellers, a former Democrat in the state legislature, put it to the Greenville News. “This ain’t a Charleston project. This is an American project.”

Or as James Baldwin said, “If you know whence you came, there are absolutely no limitations to where you can go.”

One recent morning I toured the site with Mr. Hood and Michael Boulware Moore, the museum’s president, then we looked out over the harbor. Mr. Moore said his ancestors were among the slaves who arrived in shackles at Gadsden’s Wharf.

His great-great grandfather was Robert Smalls, who commandeered a Confederate ship, turning it over to Union forces and winning freedom for himself, his family and his crew. Smalls became a crusading state legislator and United States congressman during Reconstruction. He brought free public education to South Carolina.

A plaque honoring Smalls was installed on a squat little pillar downtown not long ago. Mr. Moore showed me a picture of it.

Think, the Stonehenge set from “Spinal Tap.” The memorial looks tiny, and is periodically obscured by bushes.

Not far away, a big statue on a huge round pedestal, at the tip of the battery facing Fort Sumter, honors the Confederate Defenders of Charleston.

Symbols matter. The past is present. The museum would clearly be good for more than just business.

4. Finally, a sobering profile of “Nazi hunters” concerned about Europe’s blindness to its past:

Serge and Beate Klarsfeld are not only Europe’s most famous Nazi hunters. For more than five decades, they’ve also been the vigilante enforcers of the continent’s moral conscience.

The husband-and-wife team — through painstaking research and often daring exploits — has tracked down murderers from the suburbs of Damascus, Syria, to the jungles of Bolivia. They pushed for the arrests and ultimate convictions of former Nazis and French collaborators such as Maurice Papon, Paul Touvier and Klaus Barbie, known as the Butcher of Lyon. And they have documented the stories of thousands of French Jews sent to the Nazi gas chambers.

Their mission has been to seek justice, but also to force a European reckoning with questions of complicity and culpability in a war many people preferred to forget. It was largely their influence that prompted President Jacques Chirac, soon after taking office in 1995, to acknowledge that “France, home of the Enlightenment and the Rights of Man . . . broke her word and delivered the people she was protecting to their executioners.”

Yet today, at the respective ages of 82 and 79, Serge and Beate Klarsfeld say they are horrified by the state of affairs in Europe and beyond: the rise of right-wing populist movements, and now governments, across the continent, often fueled by support from young voters. The parallel forces of nationalism and xenophobia, once again permissible in the public sphere. The apparent desire — from Poland to the United States — to play with the truth of the past so as to alter the norms of the present, the norms the ­Klarsfelds spent decades upholding.

“The young today don’t know hunger. They don’t know war,” Serge said in an interview at the Klarsfelds’ office, reclining at a desk piled high with the kind of documents he and his wife have used for years to build their dossiers. “They don’t know that the European Union brought to Europe so much, and they don’t know that the generation that came before them worked so hard for what there is.”

There’s a theme in all of this, right? Bad memory of the past supports injustice in the present. We’ve got to try to remember well.

History Matters

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French anti-Semite Charles Maurras (AP)

The traditional double meaning applies to today’s title: these are matters of history, and history is important. Here is a quartet of recent stories from around the world illustrating the point that human beings are blessed—or doomed—to remember the past. That makes the ongoing project to remember well, with empathy and critical thinking, a crucial part of responsible citizenship in every society.

The New York Times reports on a remarkable recent discovery in Alabama:

Lorna Gail Woods had heard stories of the Clotilda since before she could speak. In the evenings, her grandmother would hold her on the porch and tell her the tale of how her great-great-grandfather came to Alabama on the last known slave ship to come to the United States.

They were brought by force, her grandmother would tell her, by an American businessman who just wanted to win a bet. Her great-great-grandfather Charlie Lewis was the oldest of 110 slaves bought in West Africa, chained in the hull of the Clotilda and sailed across the Atlantic to the Mobile-Tensaw River Delta in Alabama in 1860. But after the slaves were unloaded, the crew burned the ship, and its wreckage was never found, so many people doubted the story.

“My grandmother would tell us the story so we wouldn’t forget and so that we could continue to tell the story,” Ms. Woods, 69, said over the phone in a warm, Southern cadence.

On Monday, the story that Ms. Woods’s family — and many like hers in Africatown, the historic neighborhood of about 2,000 on the shores of the delta just north of Mobile — had passed down for more than 150 years became much more real.

On that day, Ben Raines, a reporter for AL.com, published an article in which he told of discovering the charred wooden remains of a boat believed to be the Clotilda. A team of archaeologists who visited the site said that based on the dimensions of the wreckage and its contents — including charred timber, iron drifts — the remnants were most likely those of the slave ship.

In Poland, new legislation has raised old questions about the Holocaust:

JERUSALEM — Legislation in Poland that would outlaw blaming Poles for the crimes of the Holocaust has prompted swift and furious condemnation from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel and Israeli lawmakers across the political spectrum.

The measure, which passed in the lower house of the Polish Parliament on Friday, would make it illegal to suggest Poland bore responsibility for atrocities committed on its soil by Nazi Germany during the occupation in World War II.

“The law is baseless; I strongly oppose it,” Mr. Netanyahu said in a statement on Saturday. “One cannot change history, and the Holocaust cannot be denied.”

Mr. Netanyahu said he had instructed the Israeli ambassador to Poland to meet with the Polish prime minister and express his disapproval.

The bill, which would need approval from Poland’s Senate and the president to become law, sets prison penalties for using phrases such as “Polish death camps” to refer to concentration camps set up by the Nazis in Poland.

This is controversial in part because the Nazis found willing collaborators across Europe, including in Poland. The French ought to know this too:

The name Charles Maurras evokes the darkest currents of the French past: strident nationalism and obsessive anti-Semitism. This, after all, was a man who advocated denying Jews citizenship because — to him — they could never be anything but traitors.

Despite this legacy, the French government included his name in the 2018 edition of the National Commemorations, an annual project to mark the anniversaries of notable figures and events. Maurras, for instance, was born in 1868, 150 years ago. In the text, he is described as an “emblematic and controversial figure.”

Following swift, sharp fallout over the weekend, Françoise Nyssen, France’s minister of culture, announced Sunday that the entire press run of the 2018 commemorative books will be recalled and reprinted without mention of Maurras. Her decision, she said in a statement, was meant to “remove the ambiguity” that was “likely to divide French society.”

For many, however, there was no ambiguity in the first place.

“Maurras was until the end of World War II the most prominent anti-Semite in France and the Number One enemy of liberal democracy,” said Zeev Sternhell, an expert in the history of French fascism and an emeritus professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, in an emailed statement.

“He was the intellectual leader of French hard nationalism until the end of Vichy. It was no accident that he had been sentenced to life in prison,” Sternhell said, referring to the French regime that collaborated with Nazi Germany in World War II.

Meanwhile in East Asia, tensions between Japan and South Korea continue over Japan’s atrocities during the Second World War:

The presidency of Donald Trump has triggered an unprecedented collapse of Brand America and sets the bar exceedingly low for global leaders. Yet Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Trump’s closest if not only friend among them, deserves special scrutiny for his recent refusal to apologize to South Korea over the horrors endured by tens of thousands of women treated as sex slaves by the Japanese military during the 1930s and 1940s.

There is a “been there, done that” aspect of South Korean-Japanese relations. These frenemies have never reached a mutually acceptable understanding of their shared past. Today true reconciliation has become even more elusive due to democratization in South Korea. Until the 1990s, South Korean authoritarian governments kept history caged, avoiding historical controversies in order to maintain good relations with Tokyo, which supplied them with significant economic assistance in tacit compensation for the indignities and abuses suffered under Japanese colonial rule (from 1910 to 1945). But the advent of freely elected governments unleashed smoldering popular resentments, and Koreans demanded recognition of what they endured. Politicians responded by tapping into these unresolved grievances for political gain.

Japan has changed, too. The rise of revisionists such as Abe, who embrace an evasive and exculpatory view of history, complicates Tokyo’s relations with Seoul. Japanese conservatives also play the history card to whip up their base, and Abe has been at the forefront of this movement to restore pride in the nation by whitewashing Japan’s Asian rampage (1931 to 1945) and trying to recast it as a war to liberate Asia from Western imperialism. At least 15 million Asian ghosts haunt that outlandishly rosy reinterpretation.

At the end of 2015, under pressure from Washington to get over history so that the three allies could upgrade ties, Tokyo and Seoul concluded an agreement aimed at resolving the festering “comfort women” issue. Although touted as “final and irreversible,” this diplomatic deceit was doomed not only because the public overwhelmingly rejected it but also because it lacks empathy toward the victims.

We look to the past for identity and meaning. But too often we forge our sense of belonging at the expense of others. Nationalist parties around the world, including the GOP here in the U.S., are forever worrying that hand-wringing about past misdeeds will tear at the national fabric and weaken our resolve. On the contrary, refusing to seek reconciliation and restitution makes future conflict more likely. Power fused to narratives of national righteousness does not make societies good; it makes them cruel and stupid.

Suggestions for the Next Monument to a Black Philadelphian

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A crowd celebrates the unveiling of the new Octavius Catto statue outside City Hall. September 26, 2017. Photo by Helen Armstrong.

Here’s how out of the loop I am. I was shocked to learn that Philadelphia’s new statue to 19th century African American civil rights leader Octavius Catto is the first monument to an African American on public land in Philadelphia. To put that in perspective, there are hundreds of statues on public land.

I honestly didn’t know who Octavius Catto was. I’m glad he’s getting some well-deserved recognition. For background, listen to today’s Radio Times.

So this got me thinking. Who should be memorialized next? Off the top of my head, here are some worthy figures who were either native Philadelphians or had a significant Philly connection:

Absolom Jones

Richard Allen

William Still

Harriet Tubman

Cecil B. Moore

I’m sure there are many, many others. Who would you nominate?

If I wasn’t a historian who thinks even nasty stuff should be preserved (in museums) I’d say maybe we could melt down the Rizzo statue and recast it in the form of one of these more appropriate figures.

The American Historical Association Weighs In On The Confederate Monument Debate

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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

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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

Readings for Juneteenth

Today is Juneteenth. Here’s a roundup of good stuff to read. First, what is Juneteenth and why is it important? Jemar Tisby explains:

Juneteenth is the oldest celebration of the end of slavery in the United States. It is recognized on June 19th every year. In Texas, where it is a state holiday, slaves learned of the Emancipation Proclamation on June 19, 1865, two and a half years after the initial announcement…

Juneteenth matters because in the United States freedom  has always come with an asterisk. While the founding documents of the nation declare “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights,” not all people were free and not all people enjoyed their unalienable rights. White supremacy asserted its power through the institution of race-based chattel slavery. The legacy of this heinous practice continues into the present. America has still not fully gripped the devastation slavery caused for both the enslaved and the free.

Celebrating Juneteenth gives citizens the opportunity to remember the ways freedom has always been circumscribed for people of color and it serves as motivation to press for continual emancipation from all forms of slavery.

One way to celebrate Juneteenth is to make sure it becomes a day that all Americans commemorate. Sign the Color of Change petition to make Juneteenth a national holiday.”

Celebrating Juneteenth can be one piece of a broader effort to bury the Lost Cause and reclaim a more accurate history and life-giving memory. Westenley Alcenat explains:

Leon Trotsky once noted that “what has been written with the sword cannot be wiped out by the pen.” And yet, that is precisely what took place; the accomplishments of Reconstruction were in fact rewritten and its memory overthrown by white nationalists. Academic historians derided abolitionists, praised the Confederacy, and adorned their books with admiration for Confederate generals and slaveholders. For generations thereafter, the country buried the achievements of the pioneering abolitionists who also helped usher the women’s movement. Meanwhile, the African-American chronicle of slavery to freedom and citizenship was seen by many as a misbegotten adventure.

In place of slavery and Reconstruction, the so-called “Lost Cause” took precedence throughout the former Confederacy. In fact, today Tennessee has more monuments to Nathan Bedford Forrest, a slave trader and founder of the Klu Klux Klan, than to President Andrew Jackson, a native Tennessean…

To value African-American history is to validate a politics of knowledge and resistance. Black history, in particular, exposes the poverty of memory and the injustices of a past burdened by white identity politics — one that was predicated on epistemic violence. Like the architects of Confederate monuments, racist historians from the Dunning School used their pens as weapons for knowledge destruction. Hoping to redeem white supremacy, they deployed racial terrorism by omission. This violent erasure is a challenge for today’s historian: how to write the history of a paradox — American freedom as defined by slavery? How should historians reconcile the legacy of the American Revolution, which professed natural rights but overlooked women, and especially Black and Brown persons? For many decades before the Civil Rights Movement, many white academics as well as public historians refused to answer these questions.

But there were a number of countervailing Black voices that protested the silence. As historian Albert Raboteau explained, Black congregations “articulated a theology of history in which they lambasted American Christians for turning Christianity into a clan religion…[and] for worshipping Anglo-Saxonism.” That this criticism stems from the ranks of Black Christians is notable: no other people have been more abused by American history and yet insist more persistently on their rightful place in it…

At its core, the contribution of African-American history is to at once liberate and expand the national conscience, holding the nation to the litmus test of what it professes to value. The story of the strivings of Black souls ensures that America does not forget the nightmares that tormented Martin Luther King’s Dream. Indeed, this task is more urgent today as we are confronted by the Black Lives Matter movement and efforts of Native Americans for self-determination.”

Read the whole thing.

Many Americans still have no idea what Juneteenth is about. Ben Baxter takes a look at Alabama’s state calendar and sees a problem:

For many of us, we have lived through June 19 or Juneteenth year after year without any hint of its significance in American history.

At its essence, Juneteenth is a day set to commemorate the abolition of slavery. But that detail is not widely known despite Alabama being a former slave state.

If we want to know why we have maintained this oblivion, we should look no further than the State of Alabama’s official state holiday calendar.

A quick glance will show that Juneteenth is not listed as an official state holiday. That wouldn’t be so bad if three other holidays weren’t given top billing as paid off days for state employees in 2017–Robert E. Lee Day (January 16), Confederate Memorial Day (April 24), Jefferson Davis Day (June 5). See a predicament there?”

That’s grotesque. We don’t remember well without the aid of holidays, special events, and physical spaces. We need to change our calendars and our built environment. Ed Hooper reports on the challenges of preserving a special civil war fort in Nashville as redevelopment threatens the site:

This space contains the remnants of the largest inland stone fort built during the American Civil War. Mayor Barry’s administration has instead chosen to award a developer the right to build condominiums and office spaces on a 21-acre section of it – a move that’s stunned preservationists and park supporters. The Civil War fort is unlike any other. It was constructed by black hands, staffed with some of the nation’s first black soldiers, and evolved from a campsite into a historic African-American community in the city.

Following the fall of Forts Henry and Donelson in 1862, Confederate forces retreated south evacuating Nashville to Union troops. Because of the access to railroads and rivers, Nashville quickly became the second most fortified city outside of Washington, DC. Then military governor Andrew Johnson ordered the city be fortified to defend against a Confederate counter-attack.

More than 2,700 free black tradesmen, newly-freed slaves, both men and women, were pressed into service to assist. The 12th U.S. Colored Troops Regiment that later organized in Nashville contained many of the laborers who built the fort. Union Engineer Capt. James Morton chose a rise southeast of Nashville for the largest structure. A “contraband” camp was established at the construction site to house laborers. The result four months later was a star-shaped limestone fort. The four-acre structure was named after Nashville Post Commander General James Negley. It didn’t come without cost. Historians estimate that between 600-800 died building it and were buried nearby.”

Let us remember. Happy Juneteenth!

The Lee Myth That Won’t Die

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Good riddance!

Robert E. Lee has been back in the news because his statue was one of those removed recently in New Orleans, and self-described white supremacists have been speaking up on his behalf. As Adam Serwer writes today in the Atlantic, some mainstream conservatives took umbrage at white supremacists’ efforts to claim an all-American hero for their hateful cause:

In the Richmond Times Dispatch, R. David Cox wrote that “For white supremacist protesters to invoke his name violates Lee’s most fundamental convictions.” In the conservative publication Townhall,  Jack Kerwick concluded that Lee was “among the finest human beings that has ever walked the Earth.” John Daniel Davidson, in an essay for The Federalist, opposed the removal of the Lee statute in part on the grounds that Lee “arguably did more than anyone to unite the country after the war and bind up its wounds.” Praise for Lee of this sort has flowed forth from past historians and presidents alike.

Serwer goes on to demolish this ignorant drivel and place Lee in a more appropriate context:

White supremacy does not “violate” Lee’s “most fundamental convictions.” White supremacy was one of Lee’s most fundamental convictions…

In Reading The Man, historian Elizabeth Brown Pryor’s portrait of Lee through his writings, Pryor writes that “Lee ruptured the Washington and Custis tradition of respecting slave families,” by hiring them off to other plantations, and that “by 1860 he had broken up every family but one on the estate, some of whom had been together since Mount Vernon days.” The separation of slave families was one of the most unfathomably devastating aspects of slavery, and Pryor wrote that Lee’s slaves regarded him as “the worst man I ever see.” …

Lee’s heavy hand on the Arlington plantation, Pryor writes, nearly lead to a slave revolt, in part because the enslaved had been expected to be freed upon their previous master’s death, and Lee had engaged in a dubious legal interpretation of his will in order to keep them as his property, one that lasted until a Virginia court forced him to free them.

When two of his slaves escaped and were recaptured, Lee either beat them himself or ordered the overseer to “lay it on well.” Wesley Norris, one of the slaves who was whipped, recalled that “not satisfied with simply lacerating our naked flesh, Gen. Lee then ordered the overseer to thoroughly wash our backs with brine, which was done.” …

During his invasion of Pennsylvania, Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia enslaved free blacks and brought them back to the South as property. Pryor writes that “evidence links virtually every infantry and cavalry unit in Lee’s army” with the abduction of free black Americans, “with the activity under the supervision of senior officers.”

Soldiers under Lee’s command at the Battle of the Crater in 1864 massacred black Union soldiers who tried to surrender. Then, in a spectacle hatched by Lee’s senior corps commander A.P. Hill, the Confederates paraded the Union survivors through the streets of Petersburg to the slurs and jeers of the southern crowd. Lee never discouraged such behavior. As historian Richard Plotkin wrote in No Quarter: The Battle of the Crater, “his silence was permissive.”

This information is still new to many Americans because of the enduring and successful effort to mythologize Lee as the emblem of a noble white South. It’s past time to discard these romantic stories.

In the debate surrounding Lee and the removal of Confederate statues we repeatedly hear two fallacious arguments. First, that Lee was a man of his time. This obvious truism doesn’t have the absolving power people seem to think it does. All the southern military officers who decided to fight for the Union were also men of their time. So too were the abolitionists who knew slavery was evil. And Lee’s decision to prioritize his material interests and the interests of white people was a decision made in rejection of other possibilities of which Lee was well aware.

Choosing wealth and honor over humanity is quite common! We shouldn’t be so sure that we aren’t making the same choice with our lives right now. But that’s the advantage hindsight gives us: we can learn from the banal evil of people like Lee, and we can perhaps learn to see it in ourselves. But venerating it or excusing it is unacceptable.

The second fallacy is the conflation of remembrance and honor. It’s not hard to understand the difference between learning about the past and celebrating it. A lot of people seem to be deliberately obscuring this difference. The South is littered with public spaces that honor horrendous evil while telling a false story about the past. The irony of those who say removing these statues “erases history” is that the monuments are there precisely for the purpose of erasure. Lost Causers built them as creative acts of historical fiction. They honor a past of their own making.

There are legitimate arguments to be made for new forms of contextualization around the monuments rather than removal. A solution appropriate in one space might not work in another. But wherever you come down on the issue, don’t pretend there isn’t a difference between remembering the past and honoring its worst actors. Serwer concludes with a revealing point about the meaning of these statues:

There are former Confederates who sought redeem themselves—one thinks of James Longstreet, wrongly blamed by Lost Causers for Lee’s disastrous defeat at Gettysburg, who went from fighting the Union army to leading New Orleans’ integrated police force in battle against white supremacist paramilitaries. But there are no statues of Longstreet in New Orleans; there are no statues of Longstreet anywhere in the American South. Lee was devoted to defending the principle of white supremacy; Longstreet was not. This, perhaps, is why Lee was placed atop the largest Confederate monument at Gettysburg in 1917,  but the 6’2” Longstreet had to wait until 1998 to receive a smaller-scale statue hidden in the woods that makes him look like a hobbit riding a donkey. It’s why Lee is remembered as a hero, and Longstreet is remembered as a disgrace.

The white supremacists who have protested on Lee’s behalf are not betraying his legacy. In fact, they have every reason to admire him. Lee, whose devotion to white supremacy outshone his loyalty to his country, is the embodiment of everything they stand for. Tribe and race over country is the core of white nationalism, and racists can embrace Lee in good conscience.

The question is why anyone else would.

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.