Confederate Monuments and the Limits of Public History
If you haven’t done so already, I highly recommend heading over to the Civil Discourse blog and reading Ashley Whitehead Luskey’s excellent essay on the ongoing controversy surrounding Confederate iconography. It is the most thorough essay that I have read to date and has helped me to continue to clarify my own thinking about this thorny issue. Ashley calls on public historians, “to convey to the broader public the unique professional skills, knowledge, and perspective that we possess on these topics and how such expertise can be put to work in their favor, if they choose to engage us in their discussions and decision-making.”
Much of this essay explores the importance of maintaining commemorative sites devoted to the Confederacy and the rich history that they offer if properly interpreted “in situ”. Ashley is certainly correct that we have much to learn from engaging these sites in ways that foster learning and understanding. I even agree that they have the potential to bring communities together if planned with great care. One of the many things that I like about this essay is its insistence that public historians step up to the plate and find creative ways to engage communities with whatever resources are available.
Ashley outlines what public historians at their best can achieve in their communities when engaged. She is right to point to places like Richmond, Virginia, which has made great strides in addressing how history is remembered and celebrated in public spaces. I would love to see it replicated in other towns and cities across the country.
If ever public historians have a role to play, this is it:
These in situ experiences, I feel, provide the most effective intellectual and emotional means of helping the public better understand why, in the wake of four years of unprecedented (and unreplicated) civil war, the creators of such iconography felt these icons to be so necessary; what purposes, both regionally and nationally, politically and historically, that iconography was intended to serve; why the particular placement of such items in specific spatial contexts was so significant; how (for better or for worse) such vestiges achieved their ultimate purpose; what lasting legacies (both positive and negative) they have left behind; and how Americans of all stripes continue to grapple with the complex legacies and memories of that historical iconography in the present.
Everything described above can be achieved with the help of the historians listed in the post and yet I find myself staring at the same problem that I’ve been struggling with for months.
All of this assumes that Confederate monuments and other commemorative sites ought to be understood first and foremost for their historical import. Visitors and community members ought to engage these sites on an intellectual level. The normative assumption at work here is striking given the fact that commemorative sites, including Confederate monuments, were intended to make a moral and political statement by reinforcing a set of shared community values. It was decidedly not an intellectual exercise.
My other concern is that in outlining the role that public historians ought to play in these ongoing discussions, the essay almost entirely ignores the arguments for removal/re-location. It fails to seriously engage with concerns that are not framed primarily by an interest in learning about history and historical memory or the possibility that healing will not be achieved through a counter-monument or interpretive panels, but only with a monument’s removal.
The problem that still troubles me is that many people, including our intended, or a contingent, audience, mostly doesn’t do, or respond to, history that way. I keep coming back to the question…what if the public wants something different from what I want? What if the public refuses to see a monument as an epistemological statement to be analyzed? What if that monument represents something to people—an embattled identity, a visceral threat—that can’t be soothed by historical reflection? Whose vision for monuments gets prioritized when (re)contextualizing doesn’t work or common ground can’t be found?
What if some of these communities have no need for public historians?