Update: More from Maya Little on why she vandalized the Confederate monument on the UNC-Chapel Hill campus with her own blood.
Earlier this week Maya Little, a PhD student in the history program at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, was arrested for defacing the controversial Silent Sam monument. After spending a few hours in jail she answered a couple of questions for The Chronicle of Higher Education.
I was particularly struck by her understanding of the need for historical context for this particular monument. Little’s approach undercuts or at least challenges what many in the field of public history understand as historical context. For most people this takes the form of a marker explaining the historical context in which the monument was constructed and dedicated. This is not Little’s understanding:
Q. Why did you take the action you did yesterday?
A. The fact that Silent Sam stands there — uncontextualized, glorified, without our blood on him — needed to change. Adding blood to the statue is adding proper context. Because that’s what the Confederacy was built on. It was built on the blood of black people. That’s what Jim Crow was built on.
Q. Speaking of contextualization, some people I spoke with for my December story on Silent Sam floated the idea of a marker or plaque to contextualize the monument. But to many activists, that’s not a long-term solution.
A. My blood and the red ink symbolizing the blood of black people is context. To me, that’s the context for Silent Sam. The university doesn’t want that context.
Little’s responses are a reminder of the limitations of the form of historical context understood by most public historians. I have written about this before. While there is nothing problematic about providing visitors with information about the history of the monument, it is rarely perceived as a solution by those who are the most engaged on both sides.
Maya Little offers an important reminder that these monuments can never be understood simply as artifacts of the past.