I told my students on Monday that it feels strange that the people and things I study have suddenly become so relevant. Two years ago in my Civil War class we talked at length about confederate memorials and while my students were interested (I think), they did not see the continued existence of such monuments as a pressing issue that required immediate attention.
How things have changed.
In the past two months there have been literally hundreds of newspaper, magazine, and blog articles about this topic. It has been an almost overwhelming deluge of opinions, hot takes, and arguments.
There are now multiple online syllabi that attempt to direct the conversation. This #CivilWarMemorySyllabus is particularly good. Kevin Levin, the organizer, speaks clearly and forcefully about why monuments are complex historical objects. Like other online syllabi (#charlestonsyllabus is the original), the Civil War Memory Syllabus mixes monographs with op-eds to put the current event into historical context.
That syllabus, as well-curated as it is, is still more information than most people can digest in a short amount of time. John Fea has a more manageable round-up over at The Way of Improvement Leads Home that focuses on the fear that taking the monuments down is “erasing history.” Fea explains that wondering if statues to George Washington will also come down isn’t silly; it is a legitimate question about historical memory. He links to a number of recent pieces by historians considering the differences between Washington, Lee, and their statues.
Historians, particularly public historians, have been thinking about the effect these monuments have on communities for a long time. In Richmond, Virginia, The American Civil War Museum has a great website that encourages readers to think critically about the city’s Monument Avenue. The product of years of discussions, the Monument Commission and the website show how historians have been thinking about the problem of confederate memorials before this summer. What I really like about this site is that it is an attempt to give the statues historical context digitally. Soon, you will be able to see how these monuments were constructed too. Making the process of construction visible also makes why they were constructed more obvious.
On Monday, the American Historical Association came out with a statement on confederate monuments that summarizes my opinions quite well. Over the past few weeks, when people ask my opinion on confederate memorials I take a deep breath. If I start with “it’s complicated,” many people are too disappointed to hear the rest of my statement. People want historians to have clear answers to today’s problems. I understand that, but history doesn’t actually repeat itself and so we cannot have easy answers. I also understand, and in fact share, the gut-wrenching desire to tear the monuments down myself; to throw away a past that destroyed lives and a present that encourages bigotry and hatred. But, the historian in me knows that we cannot erase the past by pulling statues down. We may be able to make a better future by changing our memorial landscape. We should talk openly in our communities about how these statues came to be and whether we want them in our present and our future.