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.