AHA to Address Confederate Symbolism Debate

Earlier today the American Historical Association announced that they will be adding a plenary session at the annual meeting on Confederate symbolism that will be free and open to the public. Panelists include David Blight, Fitz Brundage, John Coski, Daina Ramey Berry, and Jane Turner Censer. The goals of the panel involve the following:

Addressing the current public debate surrounding Confederate symbolism, the historians will reflect on the relationship between celebration, commemoration, memory, and history. Drawing on their expertise on the specifics of each situation, knowledge of similar controversies in the past, and the insights of historical thinking itself, the historians will also deliberate on what can and cannot be accomplished by the removal/relocation of Confederate symbols.

I have no doubt that the historians on this panel will engage their audience with a rich discussion about the history and memory of Confederate commemorations and celebrations. Coski knows the Richmond commemorative landscape as well as anyone and Brundage can speak to the ongoing controversy surrounding “Silent Sam” at UNC, but at this stage in the game organizations like the AHA need to move beyond such a limited format.

More to the point, historians need to stop talking to themselves on this issue if they have any hope of making an impact. It is unlikely that anyone from beyond the AHA will attend this session given the timing of this announcement and even if they do attend it is impossible to imagine that they would feel comfortable engaging the panelists in such a setting.

And that is my problem with the scope of this session. How can academic historians deliberate about “what can and cannot be accomplished” without directly engaging local communities? In fact, I would love to know why historians believe they have any authority at all to expound on “what can and cannot be accomplished” when it comes to the presence of Confederate iconography in communities around the country. This borders on arrogance.

If the AHA and other professional organizations like the OAH want to do something productive they should find ways to bring together historians with local activists, politicians, and other local leaders who are currently engaged in questions surrounding the place of Confederate iconography in their communities.

In these settings historians can offer their insights into the history of these controversies and they can listen to the concerns of those who have to live in that history.

14 comments… add one
  • Sherree Dec 23, 2015

    This is excellent, Kevin.

    Someone does need to intervene and become a mediator. Perhaps public historians or historians who actually interact with the public like you, or Brooks Simpson, should be on the panel. How about Ed Ayers?

    Mayor Landrieu meant well, and he is very passionate about righting old wrongs. But he has unintentionally created a mess.

    The issue is complex and confusing. I am personally conflicted over the removal of Confederate monuments and believe that I am not alone in that sentiment. Yesterday, I did not believe that the monuments in New Orleans should come down. Today, however, after reading what the SCV had to say about the matter, I think that they should definitely come down.

    The problem does not end with Confederate iconography, either. There are Lakota men and women who correctly believe, in my opinion, that the Black Hills belong to them. They would like to see Mount Rushmore returned to the Grandfathers. Is America ready for that? Or is there another way–a way that honors our entire history–a history that includes the Lakota and other indigenous nations and the recognition that this land was not ours for the taking, along with the respect that accompanies real acknowledgment of that fact and legislation and public policy that address generations of truly abject poverty created by the violent taking of that land. It is the same thing: two displaced groups of people still living in poverty because of the past. Sixty foot statues of Confederate heroes, or faces of US Presidents carved into sacred mountains do not help a thing. What is the solution? I really do not know. I hope someone does. I do think that Sand Creek and Richmond are good starting points.

    • Kevin Levin Dec 23, 2015

      Ed Ayers is one of the few exceptions in terms of engaging the general public directly about how local history is represented in public spaces. There is no one better. You are not alone in feeling conflicted over this issue. I often do as well.

      There is an important discussion that needs to happen and I do believe that historians need to be a part of it, but I find these academic discussions to have very little value beyond the rooms in which they take place. Thanks for the comment and Happy Holidays, Sherree.

    • Kristoffer Dec 23, 2015

      I am in favor of giving back land to the Native Americans tribes that still exist, not only to restore their land, but to free them from the damaging environment of reservations. I would return the Mount Rushmore region to the Lakota, on the grounds that the monument itself not be harmed. I would not want to interfere with a tribute to the USA’s heroes on the grounds of Native Americans being offended on the grounds of their country waging war on them, just as I would not want to interfere with hypothetical monuments to Geronimo, Sitting Bull, or Tecumseh on the grounds of descendants of people killed in the wars they waged being offended. The monuments to the good aspects of these men should be allowed to stand. This is in marked contrast to Confederate monuments, which celebrate traitors who acted against their peoples. Mount Rushmore does not perpetuate the legacy of those who acted against their country.

      Yet I would not be in favor of apologizing for the process of war, treaties of varying quality if not outright swindles, and absorbing of the Native Americans into our nation. Such a act would amount to obsession over the past. So would be obsessing over the Mountain Meadows Massacre, where numerous Native Americans joined Mormons in massacring a settler wagon train passing through Utah. So would be obsessing over Sand Creek. Or the Dakota War of 1862.

      So would be obsessing over the concept of property and requiring apologies for gaining it through illicit or neutral means. I remember reading a remarkable criticism of the libertarian concept of property. The criticism was that there was no way to establish a title of ownership for land property, on the grounds that pretty much every square foot on the planet had been gained by theft, conquest, treaty, etc, over and over again. This concept applies to the USA. It also applies to the Native Americans themselves, who went through this process themselves for thousands of years prior to the Vikings landing at L’anse aux Meadows. Requiring both the USA and the Native Americans to apologize for their seemingly endless list of illicit or neutral gaining of lands would take an awfully long time just to cover all the lands that can be traced to some possibly no longer existent owner. That alone would amount to obsession over the past, which I do not think is reasonable.

      Is there a way that honors all of our peoples at once? I think there is. It is our nation itself at present, and the fact that it has made progress over the long run in the treatment and recognition of all of its peoples. I personally believe that this nation itself is an ideal, which in the long run it has made progress towards. No ideal is attainable, but the ideal of our nation’s ability to progress is one that honors all of its peoples, and is the ideal we should aim for. It is an ideal of the future, not the past.

      I remember the words of Ely Parker, who was of Seneca descent, at Appomattox: “We are all Americans”. Perhaps I am just misguided, and I remain open to that possibility. But I like to remember those words. I hope people like Sherree can stop seeing the Native Americans as a separate people, and remember those words too.

      • Kevin Levin Dec 23, 2015

        Thanks for the comment, but what does this have to do with this particular post?

  • NPC Dec 23, 2015

    I expect to attend this plenary, it was listed in the annual meeting program which I received over 6-9 weeks ago and I am interested in the topic. I will be sorely disappointed if neo-confederates and/or simply “casually interested” members of the public take up the panelists’ and professional audience members’ time. I can google neo-confederate commentary online anytime, and will easily find the comments of both neo-confederates and casually interested “buffs” on the comment thread of any news piece about these monuments, the flag, etc. This is a meeting of professionals, who presumably engage the public daily in their teaching, blogging, community appearances, print appearances, or museum work. Not every event involving professional historians also needs to include dialogue with the passionately misinformed nor should an AHA plenary, open or closed to the public, be condemned for not reaching out to the public enough. I think everyone involved in the panel does plenty of public outreach.

    Do historians need to engage the broader public? If they wish. You believe it’s important and make it your mission, and that has a sort of nobility. As a 19th century historian I have other research interests, I have peers that I wish to engage- to learn from and to collaborate with. I have obligations to my students beyond the history of the Civil War in many, many areas and topics in US history, as well as outside of US history in simply mentoring their success in higher education and their early careers. And, frankly, I have non-work interests that consume a lot of my time, energy, etc that include my family, my health and hobbies, etc. And I understand this to be true of all my peers so I will consistently reject the tone of this blog which suggests that professional historians have an “obligation” to correct wide spread public misunderstandings of the past.

    This may be worth your consideration http://www.theguardian.com/higher-education-network/2015/dec/10/academics-forget-about-public-engagement-stay-in-your-ivory-towers

    • Kevin Levin Dec 24, 2015

      You should take up your concerns with the AHA.

      I can google neo-confederate commentary online anytime, and will easily find the comments of both neo-confederates and casually interested “buffs” on the comment thread of any news piece about these monuments, the flag, etc.

      And I can do the same with academics who have commented on this issue.

      I think everyone involved in the panel does plenty of public outreach.

      I am well aware of the panelists’ credentials.

      As for your obligations, welcome to the club. We are pulled in multiple directions.

      My concerns center specifically on whether this panel can meaningfully discuss what is and is not possible apart from the general public.

  • Sherree Dec 24, 2015

    Hi Kristoffer,

    Some books that might be of interest:

    Violence Over the Land, Ned Blackhawk

    An Indigenous Peoples’ History, Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz

    Ari Kelman, A Misplaced Massacre

    Also, Mount Rushmore is problematic. It was a monument created to idealize the concept of manifest destiny. The monument’s creator was a member of the KKK. The NPS has done excellent work in attempting to ameliorate the impact on Native communities, including hiring a Native man to oversee the operation of the monument. Also, the work that the NPS did at Sand Creek is phenomenal.

    • Joshism Dec 24, 2015

      “It was a monument created to idealize the concept of manifest destiny. The monument’s creator was a member of the KKK.”

      That the creator was a member of the KKK doesn’t seem particularly relevant as the 4 people on Rushmore were all US Presidents and none were Confederates or KKK members. Heck, how many KKK members are happy about a giant monument of Lincoln?

      As for manifest destiny, it seems a questionable selection of presidents for that purpose. Jefferson (Louisiana Purchase) and TR, sure. But Washington and Lincoln? And no Jackson or Polk?

      • Sherree Dec 25, 2015

        I agree with you on Jackson and Polk–Jackson particularly. I think Borglum chose presidents that he thought represented American ideas of freedom, liberty, and the right to expand the nation’s boundaries. The only problem with that is that each expansive growth of the nation involved dispossession of native inhabitants and war and dislocation as Native men and women fought to keep their land, which is sacred to the Indian in a way that I don’t think we white men and women really understand.

        Also, it does matter that Borglum was a white supremacist and a member of the KKK, since his vision of the monument is the vision that prevailed and that shaped one of the most iconic monuments in our nation. At one point, the Lakota chief Red Cloud was considered for representation. Borglum vetoed that idea. We are living still with Borglum’s vision, which dovetails with other white supremacist statements made in marble by generations past. It is no accident that Borglum was also the original sculptor for Stone Mountain. We can change these public spaces, and we are. That does indicate a sort of greatness as a nation, or at least, humility.

        A good holiday to you….:)

  • MSB Dec 24, 2015

    Kevin, is there any chance that the panel discussion might be recorded? I have zero chance of attending the event.

    And happy holidays, everybody!

    • Kevin Levin Dec 24, 2015

      I looked into it, but unfortunately it doesn’t look like it will be recorded.

      Happy Holidays.

  • Sherree Dec 24, 2015

    I hope that the discussion goes well. It would be helpful if the NPS took over management of Confederate iconography in New Orleans. (I do not think this is possible, legally, or the NPS would already be managing the monuments) It is too late, however, at least for me. David Duke has weighed in and clarified the issue. Andy Hall was right on Dead Confederates: this is the third battle of Liberty Place.

    Happy Holidays to you, Kevin, to your family, and to your readers!

  • John Hennessy Dec 24, 2015

    Kevin, you sound provoked. I understand your point on all this, but I offer up a couple of things that I hope will soothe you in this season of joy. 🙂

    Our world includes a great many historians who should NOT be interacting with the public directly–those who tend to muddle rather than clarify, those whose brains are attuned only to colleagues rather than the public consciousness. We have all had to bear witness to such encounters–and while we love our colleagues, we must concede that some ought not to be direct participants in a public conversation.

    I’d also suggest that even if not a single member of the public watches or participates in the AHA panel, the event will still have impact. What’s happened in our field over the last 30 years is vivid evidence of how the ideas of academia filter into the mainstream of the masses. With digital media, a largely (though not entirely) sensitized profession of public historians far more conscious of their role as translators and interpreters, and with a public more willing to see modern relevance in events of the past, I have no doubt the message and tone of AHA will find its way to the places that matter (and be ignored in some of them).

    I don’t know everyone on the panel, but I do know some….and they have a GREAT track record of taking the conversation to precisely the places and audiences you advocate. More than that, I would aver that this sort of panel is precisely what is needed: train the trainers, so that we are all better equipped to do the important work you espouse.

    • Kevin Levin Dec 24, 2015

      Hi John. Great to hear from you and Happy Holidays.

      I don’t know everyone on the panel, but I do know some….and they have a GREAT track record of taking the conversation to precisely the places and audiences you advocate. More than that, I would aver that this sort of panel is precisely what is needed: train the trainers, so that we are all better equipped to do the important work you espouse.

      I agree with this assessment 100%.

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