Debates about Confederate monuments and symbols have been on the forefront of national conversations since the Charleston Church Shooting in June 2015. The recent events in Charlottesville have rekindled the debate and President Trump’s refusal to outright condemn white supremacists has only added fuel to the fire. A “Take Em ALL Down” campaign has emerged, including a petition for the cause, sponsored by ColorofChange.org.
I personally have seen and heard historians come out on all sides of this debate. From my experiences, I think the two most popular options are to remove the monuments or add signage to offer additional context. My own opinion pulls a bit from each option. First, I agree with the call to “Take Em ALL Down.” Monuments to a white supremacist institution have no business being honorably displayed in state capitols and in public parks. But then the question becomes “where do we put them and what do we do with them when they’re taken down?”
My own approach would be to put these monuments, signs, and symbols in cultural institutions and ensure that proper context is provided. I think it is the responsibility of historians to inform the public not only about history, but also about how we, as Americans, remember our history. These monuments are as much a part of the story as the Civil War itself is; they serve as visual manifestations of white opposition to the abolition of slavery and growing freedoms for black Americans. They represent a desire to cling to a cause rooted in white supremacy.
When I talk to friends or family about this they often respond, “that makes sense. So why aren’t we already doing this?” My answer? “Because America isn’t always great at acknowledging it’s mistakes and repenting for them.” The version of American history taught to kids in schools is often white-washed (and male-focused). It often leaves out details and failures for the sake of a clear and triumphant recollection of a particular time period.
In my own research for my graduate research seminar, I set out to learn more about Confederate monuments at Gettysburg National Military Park. There are a few different layers to my research. First, I analyzed the linguistic and visual elements of the monuments through a masculine lens. I traced the creation of masculinity in our history and was able to argue that words like “honor” and “noble” are inherently masculine, therefore using those words to describe the Confederacy evokes a positive and triumphant connotation. Secondly, I only looked at state-sponsored monuments, erected post-1960. There are 8 monuments that fit the criteria: The Arkansas State monument, the Florida State monument, the Georgia State monument, the Louisiana State monument, the Maryland State monument, the Mississippi State monument, the South Carolina State monument, and the Texas State monument. I argue that by creating reverent and triumphant monuments to the Confederacy during the height of the Civil Rights Movement, these state governments were participating in white resistance to Civil Rights. This is heightened by the fact that the monuments are on National Park Service, aka federal, land at a site which has welcomed over 1 million visitors a year since 1980 and in 1969 and 1970, had over 6 million visitors annually.
The problems here are obvious and yet, there is no interpretation for these specific monuments being offered at Gettysburg. Visitors are left to their own devices to interpret the messages for themselves, and I’m sure, many come away thinking that there are no issues with these monuments. This complacency can no longer stand as the official stance of the federal government. Kevin Levin of Civil War Memory raises similar concerns in a recent post and asks “When will we begin to ask whether this is who we are as a nation?”
It is time for museums, historic sites, the National Park Service, and all other keepers of history to come together to create interpretation that truthfully contextualizes our past. We need to admit to our wrongdoings and begin to brainstorm ways to reconcile them. Germany’s method of reconciling with a hateful past is a model approach, in my opinion. This NPR article outlines some ways in which Germany remembers the Holocaust. They do not glorify Nazi sites and they have erected monuments to the victims so that they will not forget those who were treated unjustly and inhumanely.
In summation, my own views and previous research experience with the topic lead me to favor this approach: 1- remove all Confederate symbols from public spaces so as to stop glorifying them. 2- move them to spaces where they can be understood in context, in conjunction with clear and specific signage, programming, or other interpretation so that Americans can begin to learn the real reasons these monuments were erected and why it was, and still is, wrong. 3- Erect new monuments to honor those that have suffered at the hands of white supremacy. And not this kind of despicable “loyal slave” monument that was almost erected in DC in the 1920s. Powerful and respectful monuments to victims of white supremacy.
Only then can America move forward. Read More »