Defining “Context” in the Context of Confederate Monuments
If you haven’t done so already, I highly recommend watching the panel discussion about New Orleans and Confederate monuments that I took part in on Al Jazeera this past week. Little, if anything, of what I had to say will be surprising to those of you who follow this blog. What I continue to think about is the interaction throughout the discussion between Terri Coleman, an activist in New Orleans and Professor Jonathan Zimmerman, from the University of Pennsylvania.
Zimmerman defends the position of many public historians, which is the necessity of adding context to Confederate monuments to better help the community understand the relevant history. This can come in many forms, including wayside markers and other signage. This approach assumes that the visitor can detach herself from the object in question.
What Zimmerman and other public historians are missing is that while historical context may be informative it is not a solution for activists like Coleman, who have a very different understanding of context. For Coleman, the monument to Robert E. Lee and others in New Orleans have already been contextualized over the years in the form of discrimination, segregation, corruption, and, of course, Katrina. It is not the detached historical context that is fitting for a wayside marker, but a lived historical context that Coleman and others have expressed.
In that sense public historians and activists are talking past one another in this discussion. Activists like Coleman do not need a history lesson and they do not need historical markers to remind them of the history of Jim Crow, segregation, and violence.
I count myself lucky that I do not live in a community where the sight of a monument makes me feel as if I don’t belong or that I am inferior. I do not have a visceral reaction when I see a Confederate monument. My immediate response is to try to interpret it with my limited knowledge. It’s easy for me to put on my public historian cap.
This is a privilege I enjoy that I don’t for a minute believe supersedes the kinds of concerns expressed by Coleman and others, who live with the consequences of this history on a daily basis.
No, I am not going to lecture anyone in New Orleans that removing monuments to Confederate leaders runs the risk of erasing the past.