Occupy Wall Street Teaches History and False Memory

Virginia History Textbook

The Occupy Movement has not been on my radar much since it took to the streets on September 17, 2011.  I’ve found it difficult to identify with their stated goals and tactics, though I certainly sympathize with the frustration expressed over the economic direction of the country.   Today I learned that earlier this week the Occupy Movement in New York City marked the 300th anniversary of the city’s first slave market, which happened to be located on Wall Street near Pearl and Water.  On the face of it you may not see anything suspicious; after all, it looks like they are encouraging the community and the nation to remember an aspect of the city’s past that is all too often ignored.  The organization, including Chris Cobb and a small group of mainly white protesters along with City Council member Jumaane Williams have organized a petition to place historic markers to commemorate the neighborhood’s ties to the history of slavery.

While there doesn’t seem to be anything problematic, if you listen closely there is actually something quite disturbing about the way in which the Occupy Movement has chosen to frame this lesson in history and memory.  Here is a short excerpt from the Huffington Post:

Cobb, who is white, said he sees clear connections between Wall Street’s role as an engine of the slave trade, the public’s ignorance of that history and what he describes as corporate America’s current exploitation of poor and middle-class workers.  As Occupy Wall Street protesters have been evicted form public spaces across the country, the movement has shifted from static occupations to sporadic actions. Those efforts include occupying vacant and foreclosed homes, as well as attempts to shut down ports and to call attention to the situation of workers inside such esteemed intuitions as the auction house Sotheby’s.

“We were in the theory phase before the raid [on Zuccotti Park]. Now we are in the action phase, responding to the theory we were talking about,” Cobb said.  Cobb sees the move to recognize and mark the slave market space as a natural next step in the effort to expose the evils of economic inequality.  “It’s hard to talk about race with white people in general, because there are a lot of misunderstandings,” said Cobb. “But I think there is a place where a conversation can begin, and that is with fairness. It’s only fair that there be some recognition here.”

My concern is with the way in which the history of slavery and the slave trade in New York City is being connected to the agenda and economic outlook of the Occupy Movement.  The petition itself says very little about the history that they wish to mark, but it is the close comparison made between the economic hardships that too many Americans are currently facing and slavery itself that is truly disturbing.  We can certainly draw connections between Wall Street, the slave trade, the public’s ignorance, and the current economic hardships faced by middle-class workers, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that we will learn anything interesting.  In fact, I would suggest that such vague comparisons have little to do with history at all.

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Keeping Robert E. Lee Right Where He Belongs

Update: The two posts on this subject have been combined for a short post at The Atlantic. Thanks again for the thoughtful feedback.

Students on Monument Avenue

Thanks to all of you who left comments in response to the recent story out of Richmond, Virginia, about the decorative art that was attached to three statues along Monument Avenue.  The goal of the protester was to remind visitors and others that Richmond’s history extends beyond its preoccupation with its Confederate and may have also wanted to show that the monuments in question were erected at a time when African Americans were barred from local government and the kinds of conversations that directly shape how a local community remembers its collective past.

The post (as well as the online news reports) brought out some very strong views, but I am especially intrigued by those readers who not only approve of the additions of the plaques, but with the removal of the monuments.  One reader had this to say:

I’m suggesting that’s an overly narrow framing of the issue, which should be: who gets to decide what messages take up our public space TODAY? Your view strikes me as giving too much privilege to the white supremacists who put up all the monuments in the first place. Just because they had that power once doesn’t entitle their “monuments” to deference for all time. I respect your scholarly approach to this, but I disagree – I’d rather see these monuments removed to a “Museum of Racism”.

I thought I would take just a few moments to clarify my position.  First, I don’t believe that monuments to the past necessarily warrant an indefinite life span.  I can think of any number of examples where I believe the removal of monuments and memorials are justified from the toppling of statues of King George III at the beginning of the American Revolution to the pulling down of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad.  In those two examples, however, their removal functioned as part of the end of a government or revolution.  I’m sure we could just easily come up with other examples justifying the removal of a historical marker of one sort or another.

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Teaching Sherman’s March and Civil War Memory

I came across this short video today that focuses on a new historical marker on Sherman’s March that was recently unveiled in Savannah, Georgia. For those of you in the classroom who may be pressed for time this video can be used to introduce your students to some of the basic questions surrounding Civil War memory.  The video begins with Todd Groce of the Georgia Historical Society, who introduces the marker and the story behind General William T. Sherman’s meeting with Secretary of War Edwin Stanton and twenty African Americans who were asked for their advice about what ought to be done for the newly freed slaves.  It then cuts to Mayor Otis Johnson, who reads an account of how the black delegation, including Garrison Frazier responded.

Students can reflect on a number of questions surrounding the connection between race and politics and how the general public remembers its past:

  • Why is it important for your community to remember its past?
  • What kinds of events are memorialized in your community?
  • Do your monuments and other public historic spaces reflect the racial/ethnic profile of your community?
  • To what extent does the racial/ethnic profile of local government determine who and what is remembered?

There is an interesting camera angle that shows both the new historical marker and what I assume is a Confederate monument in the background.  Remind your students that the overwhelming number of monuments that can be found throughout the South were erected between roughly 1880 and 1940 and at a time when African Americans could not vote or run for office.  The dramatic shift in how local communities remember their past has taken place since the civil rights movement of the 1960s and could only happen as a result of increased voting rights for African Americans and their ability to run for public office.

What other questions might be brought up in your classroom?

For Every Southern Boy…

It’s been interesting to watch the comments section at The Atlantic evolve in response to my most recent post.  I have no moderating power so it is just a matter of sitting back and watching individuals talk past one another in their typical self-absorbed fashion.  That said, some of the comments are worth a bit of reflection.  Here is one in response to the work of the Virginia Sesquicentennial Commission, which has gone furthest in promoting the sesquicentennial:

I believe I speak for many Virginians when I say that we are very  disappointed in the Virginia Civil War Sesquicentennial Commission and its blatant exclusion of any recognition of the 32,000+ Virginians who answered the State’s call to take up arms in her defense and never returned home, or the thousands more who survived the war and returned to help rebuild the ruins of the State.

While no one denies that slavery was one of the main issues that led to the conflict and deserves a place in any discussion of the War Between the States, this commission has taken its original focus of inclusion, which we applaud,  and twisted it so far as to make slavery/emancipation its main focus, in effect excluding any remembrance of the men and women who so valiantly defended Virginia.

Now, we could jump in and detail for this individual the extent to which Virginia’s Confederates fit into the many projects sponsored by the commission, but that would be a waste of time.  Even a cursory glance at their website should be sufficient to satisfy most people that the memory of the Confederate soldier is secure.

If we take one step back, however, it is clear that it is not the lack of coverage of the Confederate soldier that is of concern to this individual, but the way in which the narrative itself is framed.  First, notice the nod to the importance of slavery as “one of the main issues” that led to secession and war, but once the war begins it’s about the soldiers and apparently there is no more need to bring it up.  What this individual wants is a narrative that celebrates the Confederate soldier along with his goal of an independent nation.  The coming year is going to be a good one for those Virginians who find themselves imagining the possibilities of a Confederate victory.  It’s going to be Faulkner’s “Intruder in the Dust” on a grand scale.

I guess it comes down to the question of whether the state of Virginia should commemorate the Civil War as if it hoped to become part of an independent Confederate nation or in recognition that the past 150 years – even with all its setbacks – was a better outcome not only for the generation that fought the war, but for us as well.