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.

Christopher Graham effectively sums up my concerns:

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?

Searching for Black Confederates: The Civil War’s Most Persistent Myth

“Levin’s study is the first of its kind to blueprint and then debunk the mythology of enslaved African Americans who allegedly served voluntarily in behalf of the Confederacy.”–Journal of Southern History

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8 comments… add one
  • Patrick Jennings Jan 29, 2016 @ 5:16

    As a practicing public historian I can not think of a single instance where the removal of an historic object improved discussion, discourse, or learning. The destruction of the Buddha’s at Bamyan has not brought us closer to a reasoned discourse on Middle Eastern History free of the confines of religious dogma. The ISIS dismantling and shelling of ancient Roman ruins in Palmyra has not lifted the discussion out of the miasma of the horrible, lasting impacts of Roman imperialism such as war, slavery, rape and cultural disruption.

    OK, I admit that I am being (intentionally) over dramatic with the cases above. Still, I think that it is important to note that public memory is always shifting and always aware. I am opposed to the simple removal or relocation of any public monument (monuments, not flags or other symbols) simply because those things are interwoven into the fabric of the society we live in. A contemporary cavalier attitude (read modern, transitory politics) over a memorial object can, and will, have lasting repercussions. The best example is the Vietnam War Memorial, a site so modified, it no longer does what it was built to inspire – and all those modifications are the result of how we “feel” now, each lacking a full understanding of the past, each a reflection of contemporary emotion. Even now, here in DC, there is a raging debate over the need and location for an already approved WWI Monument. Most architects despise the selected finalists, most preservationists dread the loss of a post-modernist landscape, and the vast majority of the people just don’t care…until it is built and done. Then it becomes part of what we are and they care. It becomes a landmark. it becomes a touchstone for memories good and bad. It becomes part of what we are. (and don’t even get me started on the nightmare that will be the Eisenhower Monument).

    I agree with Kevin in that public historians need to step back and let the thing be. I agree, in this case, that public historians need to be there to discuss the thing, but perhaps not interpret it. When I worked for the NPS I used to tell visitors that monuments are not built for the dead, they are built for the living. The problem is, those living soon join the dead leaving us to decide what it means and so it does what it was always intended to do – be something for the living. So I say let them be embattled, visceral, threatening. Let them be to the living whatever they want it to be. But, most importantly, let them be.

    • Kevin Levin Jan 29, 2016 @ 5:48

      Hi Patrick,

      Thanks for the thoughtful comment. I agree with the thrust of what you have laid out above. We do need to tread carefully when it comes to managing our commemorative spaces and I strongly believe that public historians have an important role to play.

      Let them be to the living whatever they want it to be. But, most importantly, let them be.

      As a public historian you have every right to come down on the side of preservation for whatever reason, but what I think we need to acknowledge that such a conclusion does not simply reflect the historian, but the citizen/community member. This seems to me to be an important distinction. I suspect that among public historians the way in which we come down on the ultimate question of removal/relocation v. preservation reflects broader philosophical/psychological/political factors that go beyond public history theory and historiography.

  • H.S. Anderson Jan 28, 2016 @ 12:32

    I really enjoyed the article, but it largely overlooks the fact that the attempt to remove Confederate monuments from public display is largely motivated by modern racial politics, and is largely emotionally or politically driven. An intellectual appeal about why these monuments are valuable, such as the one Ashley Luskey writes about here, is probably going to be ignored by far too many.

    Still, it might be worth the effort to put it in front of our city or state representatives and see what the results are. I certainly plan to do that. Thanks for sharing.

    • Kevin Levin Jan 28, 2016 @ 13:07

      I really enjoyed the article, but it largely overlooks the fact that the attempt to remove Confederate monuments from public display is largely motivated by modern racial politics, and is largely emotionally or politically driven.

      I don’t deny this point. In fact, this post and others reinforces this specific point. I have stated over and over that the debate is largely about politics, which is why I believe public historians need to step back and not assume that commemorative sites such as monuments ought to be treated primarily as classrooms.

  • Barb Gannon Jan 27, 2016 @ 7:38

    People ought to do a lot of things but likely they will not. You have to deal with what is. I am currently working on a synthesis on CW memory. I am thinking a great deal about these issues. First, I think it must be acknowledged that the public space is owned by the public. If the public or the officials they elect decide to remove monuments they should be removed. Second, no one who has taught students who are more representative of the historical understanding of most college students, let alone Americans as a whole, believe that this type of nuanced understanding is possible. For God sake, look at Clinton’s remarks on reconstruction. Finally, and this is key, fixing Civil War memory was NEVER going to fix race in America. NEVER. If communities feel that the time has past to remove monuments of flags fine, it will not “cause” anything to happen. Memory reflects the present; causes Won or Lost cause nothing in the present.

    • Kevin Levin Jan 27, 2016 @ 7:52

      This is an important point and one that I’ve made numerous times over the past months and we see it in Ashley’s essay. It is a mistake to proceed on the assumption that public historians have the ability to fix what we see as a problem. We don’t have a monopoly on how to engage historical memory in public spaces.

      We also need to be thinking more broadly about how these monuments and other iconography can be interpreted apart from the landscapes and settings on which they were placed. There is certainly a value of on-site interpretation, but that is not going to always be possible and even if we lose something valuable in their removal we may gain something else in a different environment.

      Can’t wait to read your book.

  • Sandi Saunders Jan 27, 2016 @ 6:25

    Excellent summation and I agree with the concerns. This is not just a historical issue and the passion, “embattled identity” and “visceral threat” are not negligible, they are reality. Most of the people who are engaged in the debate who are “pro Confederacy” already distrust, disavow and dismiss the “Northern version” of even the most credible historians in favor of those who perpetuate the Lost Cause myths. Most of the people who are engaged in the debate who are anti-slavery or white supremacy have long been convinced (by the very nature of those who placed the monuments) of their purpose and it is less history than histrionics in their mind. Neither side is going to blithely accept any “contextualizing” or historical accuracy effort. The apathetic will still not care. Careful wading in on a case by case basis might work some places but that is the best we can hope for IMHO. A problem never solved has the potential to erupt. A wound never healed has the potential to become a cancer.

  • Pat Young Jan 27, 2016 @ 6:01

    I enjoy the Civil Discourse blog. I recommend it to your readers as a place with diverse voices on a variety of Civil War Era topics.

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