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.

14 comments… add one
  • Eric A. Jacobson May 30, 2017 @ 8:15

    Kevin, I watched the panel discussion, and felt very conflicted at its conclusion. With all due respect, I think you are giving a couple of folks on the panel a pass. While I had some issues with Coleman’s approach, it was Suber’s passing comment about the “so-called Founders” which really caught my attention. This is the dangerous territory we are entering. While perhaps activists like Coleman, and Suber, do not need a history lesson because they have lived a situation that is both current and personal, I honestly wonder what they do know. Their emotions and feelings do not trump historical fact, and if they say they don’t need one, I find that incredibly arrogant.

    If Suber read Alec Stephens’ Cornerstone Speech he would know that those who helped to create the Confederacy, and left us with the stain of Jim Crow, understood with perfect clarity that the Founders were wholly different than the secessionists. One created a republic with slavery, and the other created a slave republic. There is a fundamental difference, but I suspect they do not know it, or even worse they know it and are simply not forthright about it because the truth would blunt their message. I mean seriously, even Coleman said Jefferson knew he was not committing “beastiality,” which I guess was her way of admitting that Jefferson knew Sally Hemings was a human being. Yes, he did know she was a human being. He advocated the premise of equality bestowed by a “Creator,” which, of course, Stephens denied and said flat out that Jefferson was wrong. This is not giving Jefferson any sort of pass for his own biases, but I implore us a country, and those of us in the field of history, to not lump he and people like James Madison (who went to great pains to use the word “persons” in reference to slaves in the Constitution) in with the secessionists and then conveniently label everyone with the label of “white supremacy.” As I listened I kept thinking about Gary Gallagher’s book The Union War.

    In the end I think New Orleans will be better off without statues of Lee and Davis, in particular. I understand the reasons behind their removal even while conceding I have no idea what the struggle has been like for any person of color. I also agree that signage next to existing statues won’t accomplish much of anything. However, I remain very troubled by the approach I saw during the panel discussion.

    Thanks for hearing me out.

    • Kevin Levin May 30, 2017 @ 10:58

      Hi Eric,

      Thanks for the comment. Keep in mind that these interviews go by pretty fast. I did my best to get a word in, but as you saw it wasn’t always easy.

      I agree with the distinction you reference between a “republic with slavery” and a “slave republic.” In fact, it is one that I have raised multiple times on this blog and I agree that is important to acknowledge. That said, I don’t necessarily expect others to embrace it as a guidepost for the kind of activism that we are seeing in New Orleans and elsewhere.

      I have my doubts that Take ‘Em Down Nola will be successful beyond these first four monuments. In fact, I have suggested that the mayor’s recent speech positioned him in a way to resist additional calls. We shall see.

      However, I remain very troubled by the approach I saw during the panel discussion.

      In the end, these debates are not primarily about history as we would like it to be interpreted.

    • Lee Hodges May 31, 2017 @ 8:00

      “…the Founders were wholly different than the secessionists. One created a republic with slavery, and the other created a slave republic. There is a fundamental difference…”

      • Lee Hodges May 31, 2017 @ 8:03

        Sorry, I submitted my post before it was completed. When I cited this:

        “…the Founders were wholly different than the secessionists. One created a republic with slavery, and the other created a slave republic. There is a fundamental difference…”

        I meant to say that this is like the difference between being a president who happened to be Catholic–which is what JFK was–and a “Catholic president”–which is what many worried he’d be during the 1960 campaign.

  • cagraham May 29, 2017 @ 12:52

    Was here a bit over a year ago. Agree with everything, including the lack of faith in the ability of “contextualization” to accomplish anything one way or another.

    Was thinking about this when reading this item by Peter Seixas. He’s talking about history education in the time of Trump, and dwells on “positionality in knowledge production”—doing what you are doing here and acknowledging perspective and limits in how you assign value to evidence and interpretation. I’m trying to figure through how “lived historical context” and those “who do not need historical markers” squares with Seixas’ imperative to teach “the importance of defending interpretations that are supported by the weight of evidence, not as just one among many possible ways of seeing things.”

    Would never deny the value of lived experience (and find Coleman’s position more compelling than Zimmerman’s) but it reminds me that evidence of that experience—the tools that we usually use: documents, oral histories, etc.—is often missing from all this. You know this material better than I do (and I’ve seen others struggle to find a counternarrative to these monuments) so am I right in thinking that documentation of the ways African Americans and others have connected these monuments’ power to their own lived experience with racism is not what it needs to be? I’m thinking, for instance, of the Robert Leon Bacon letter that isn’t specifically about monuments, but associates his fear of lynching with Monument Avenue.

    Guess what I’m trying to talk toward is to suggest that “public historians and activists” don’t necessarily have to be talking past one another. Do context, ok, but broaden it, learn to utilize “lived experience” as evidence, resist the temptation to place that evidence on a panel with words in a dispassionate fashion, use methods that emphasize emotional connection and not intellectual detachment, and it’s a step forward. If compelling evidence-based interpretation leads a visitor to walk away thinking that the monuments should just go away, then fine.

    Anyhow, just thinking out loud…

  • Christopher Coleman May 29, 2017 @ 7:43

    Kevin, you say, “Activists like Coleman do not need a history lesson.” Actually, I think they do, very badly. I understand that the horrific shooting of Black church goers in South Carolina was what sparked this current round of political correctness. But that racism was also the by-product of a conscious decision by political leaders at the highest level to employ both dog-whistle and overt racism for short term political gain. Fear and hatred get votes, sad to say. But the erasing of monuments that represent a history one would prefer to forget is the wrong solution to a far deeper problem, and in the end solves nothing.

    Slavery in America was so deeply engrained in our society because it benefited economic elites both north and south. The Southern planter class–a small economic elite who controlled the Southern political system–became obscenely wealthy off of commercial farming, which in turn enriched northern merchants and industrialists as well. Racism was the necessary ideological consequence of this system; and while that system has evolved since the Civil War, including the technical elimination of slavery, I would argue that the exploitation of the working class by an economic/political elite has never really been overturned; which is why the United States incarcerates seven times more persons than any other nation on earth, including many oppressive dictatorships. One recent writer has even describe our prisons as “warehouses for surplus workers.”

    The reforms of the Progressive Era, of the New Deal, and of the Civil Rights era, now appear more and more like just brief, if bright, interludes. Regardless, scratching the itch does not cure the disease; it only makes it worse. Removing historical monuments based on perceived offensiveness will not ameliorate the very real underlying problems which exist in those communities and our nation as a whole.

    After the Civil War, many who had who had served honorably or who had lost loved ones during the conflict, naturally wished to memorialize the pain and suffering that they experienced. This was true both north and south; nearly every community in existence during the war erected some kind of memorial; some were to specific local heroes, others were generic soldier icons. In the South this took the form of Confederate monuments; in the North, of Union ones. To be sure, these monuments simplify what was a far more complex situation which obtained during the war; many in the South opposed secession and Secessionism; many in the North were vehemently against abolition and Abolitionism. Southern Unionists were often quite racist in their own right; some Confederates, although countenancing slavery, did not harbor hatred of blacks per se. I could assemble a sizeable list of Union heroes who committed gross violations of the civil rights of innocent civilians or who harbored sympathy for slavery and slave-holding; no one is wanting to tear down their monuments. Conversely, there were some noted Confederate leaders who are now the target of the PC crowd, who, if the activists knew their American history, would be understood as having promoted racial harmony and opposed racism, at least in the postwar era. But the current push for the eradication of historical monuments is not based on an understanding of our past, but on ignorance of it. Promoting ignorance never results in enlightenment.

  • Randy Sparks May 29, 2017 @ 4:48

    Dylann Roof convinced me and many others that it is past time to remove the neo-Confederate interpretation of the Civil War and Reconstruction from our public spaces and textbooks. The flag and the monuments and the ideas that built them and kept them in place are festering wounds on the body politic. Signs and plaques are simply insufficient, nothing more than bandaids that leave the monuments intact and in their places of honor. Do what Berlin has done and move them to a museum where they can truly be reinterpreted. I am so proud of my city and the activists who have made removal a reality. Thanks for the discussion.

  • msb May 29, 2017 @ 4:38

    Kevin, I don’t know if you’ve already seen it, but there’s a very nice shout-out for your work on the Crater on Daily Kos (

    • Kevin Levin May 29, 2017 @ 4:47

      Thanks so much for passing this along. I completely missed it.

  • Dudley Bokoski May 29, 2017 @ 3:05

    Contextualization won’t get off the ground in most places. Local governments rightfully want to address issues which relate to the here and now. They don’t like controversy and have a great incentive to want to see those situations go away. Removing the monuments gets angry people out of their council chambers faster. Contextualizing just allows lingering controversy over the monuments and the wording of the contextualization. My guess is there will be a wave of removals after New Orleans and, excepting the monuments protected by states, most will be gone inside five years. People who say they are for contextualization when they know it won’t occur are really just advocates for blanket removal who want to appear nuanced.

    • Kevin Levin May 29, 2017 @ 3:41

      The problem with contextualization as outlined by public historians is that it is not a solution for the parties that are the most deeply engaged. Confederate heritage types won’t agree with the history outlined in wayside markers and other signage and activists calling for removal don’t need a history lesson. You are right that this is not over. It will be interesting to see what happens in Baltimore.

  • Forester May 28, 2017 @ 12:03

    What about my solution of, essentially, “Denazification?” Gradually change the monuments away from being Confederate where possible. The monuments can stop being Confederate, or at least stop being SPECIFICALLY Confederate. It worked in Germany, removing swastikas while leaving the buildings and structures intact.

    I’m really only concerned about the Monument in Norfolk, because it’s the only part of World Wars-era main street still standing. I intend to fight like heck to keep it standing in some form, regardless of how much it has to be changed in order to remain.

    • Eric Koszyk May 30, 2017 @ 9:49

      Um, there are no NAZI monuments in Germany because they were never built after World War II. Monuments and buildings are two completely different types of structures with different purposes.

      • Forester May 31, 2017 @ 10:21

        I gotta stop mentioning Nazis. I’m also a WW2 buff, so that colors my thinking. It was only a loose analogy. Don’t read too much into it.

        You’re slightly right about the lack of Nazi monuments. Monuments were built after 1945, but the Allied order No. 30 forbid and called for the destruction of any edifice “promoting German military tradition,” unless it had architectural value (eg, buildings). As originally worded, this would have led to the destruction of WWI monuments as well, but it was never enforced in that context. The order was too strict to actually work, and was later amended to allow memorials to specific units. It ended up being followed on a case-by-case basis, and nothing too militaristic could remain on the monument (some of which were dedicated to all dead, Axis or Allied). Some installations were altered, others totally removed. The whole history of the kriegerdenmal is complicated, and there was no “one size fits all” solution for each monument.

        God, I love talking about WW2. Sometimes I wish this blog was “WW2 Memory” instead. But I digress.

        I feel that a Confederate Civil War monument can be converted to a generic Civil War Monument by adding or removing signage. Not every monument, of course. Certainly none of the NOLA monuments could be re-purposed.

        Like I said before, I’m only concerned with ONE monument, for reasons not connected with the Civil War at all. A street in my hometown was a popular destination (bars, tattoo, burlesque, pool halls, ect) for Navy sailors in the World Wars, and it happened to have a Confederate monument. Everything but the monument has been torn down, and I don’t want the last piece of East Main Street lost.

Now that you've read the post, share your thoughts.