Between the Past and Present
My good friend, John Hennessy, has a way of encapsulating in just a few sentences what typically takes me months to articulate on this blog. John added his voice to a post I wrote on the role of public historians in the current debate about the public display of Confederate iconography:
The dog has bitten its tail, and it hurts.
Historians have worked hard to help Americans see and understand the past more clearly. Now that Americans by and large do, some of them want to obliterate the symbols of the history that historians have labored so hard to help them understand.
Most of us in this business have espoused, loudly, that people should accept the complexities of the past.
Sometimes, though, we as historians have a hard time accepting the complexities of the present.
The complicated landscape in which historians work–subject to changing values, newly empowered voices, and shifting political and societal winds–means that some people, some sites, some communities, some states, and perhaps even some government entities will choose not to view these icons and sites as historical tools of learning, but as present sources of pain and discord.
Indeed, despite historians’ best efforts, the larger part of the milieu that will determine the fate Confederate icons resides not in the past but in that complicated present, which we as historians can little hope to influence.
The messy, boisterous marketplace of the American mind will figure this out. In the meantime, public historians ought to continue doing what we do, recognizing the limits of what we can do–that sometimes the history of things like the windows at St. Pauls is not all that matters. Sometimes, to some eyes, the present matters more.