Historians Speak: A Collection of Resources, by Historians, on Charlottesville and the Charged Politics of Civil War Memory

 

Dr. Ibram Kendi speaks during Morning Meeting

Dr. Ibram X. Kendi is Professor of History and International Affairs at American University and an active commentator on current affairs, including the events in Charlottesville. Image from https://www.ibramxkendi.com/

Following the violent demonstration by white supremacists in Charlottesville, Virginia on August 12th, national dialogue about the significance of American history—and its telling—has crescendoed. Two weeks after white supremacists clashed with counter-protestors over the removal of a statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee, public leaders have turned unprecedented critical attention to other public monuments that honor the Confederacy, the self-proclaimed nation that attempted to secede from the United States in order to defend and perpetuate the enslavement of African Americans. Professional historians have contributed vital perspective to the movement. By removing Confederate monuments, explained American Historical Association (AHA) Executive Director Jim Grossman in a recent podcast, “you’re not erasing history, because there’s a difference between history and commemoration. What you’re doing is saying ‘we are no longer going to honor either these people or the cause that they stood for.’”

The wave of conversations about the Civil War and its lasting politics may strike some observers as new—a marked change from the customary present tense of the news cycle. But the subject is an old one. Much of the public commentary of the last two weeks owes an intellectual debt to the work of professional historians, who have labored over the past one hundred years to better understand the Civil War and its varied interpretations through time. Black scholars of the early twentieth century, such as W. E. B. Du Bois, first recognized connections between white supremacist war narratives and the Progressive-Era erection of Confederate monuments, though white academics largely ignored their arguments. In more recent decades, American historians began to widely acknowledge the rise of Lost Cause rhetoric in the 1890s as a key historical development that helped to legitimate white supremacist narratives of the Civil War. In his leading work, historian David Blight argues that reconciliationist and white supremacist versions of the Civil War merged in the 1890s to usher in Jim Crow and black disfranchisement.[1] To remove the statues erected by white supremacists is to refute their historical cause as unworthy of honor in the present. Memory and its public handling, these scholars know, is deeply political.

The editorial board encourages readers to seek commentary and opinion by historians—those best prepared to interpret the historical significance of the monument removals, as well as the backlash against them. What follows is a list of links to some of our favorite interviews and written pieces by American historians in the wake of Charlottesville.

A final point, before the links. To recognize the importance of this moment in time and to encourage continued conversation about the politics of commemoration, the Erstwhile editorial board is pleased to announce a new series this academic year, “The Monuments Among Us.” Each month, one of our Contributing Editors will comment on a monument of choice, drawing from his or her specific historical expertise to build a dialogue about the many forms monuments take. It is our hope that the resulting tapestry will encourage readers to seek and interrogate public memorials. Far more than lifeless structures gathering moss, historical monuments are vital, politically active components of contemporary social life.

1) The American Historical Association (AHA) has assembled a meticulous list of over 140 recent op-eds by and press interviews consulting AHA members. This is a terrific resource for charting involvement by professional historians in the dialogues following Charlottesville.

2) “‘The Civil War Lies on us Like a Sleeping Dragon’: America’s Deadly Divide—And Why It Has Returned,” by David Blight, author of Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory (2001)

Blight takes the reader on a brisk tour through the tumultuous 1850s and the political conditions that led to disunion and civil war, comparing them to our own times. He invokes the enduring relevance of a line from Race and Reunion: “As long as America has a politics of race, it will have a politics of civil war memory.”

3) “What Would Jefferson Say About White Supremacists Descending Upon His University?,” by Ibram X. Kendi, author of Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America (2016)

Kendi draws out the contradictions of Thomas Jefferson as a figure and thinker in his relation to white supremacy and the Confederacy. He reminds the reader that leading Confederates were explicit about the purpose of their rebellion. As Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens put it, “Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.” Monuments to Confederate figures perpetuate these notions.

4) “Reasserting White Supremacy: South Carolina’s Ben Tillman and the 2016 Presidential Election,” by Caroline Grego, Ph.D. Candidate at CU-Boulder

Last November, Erstwhile Contributing Editor Caroline Grego wrote a piece about the statue of Benjamin Ryan Tillman on South Carolina’s Statehouse grounds, which faced the Confederate flag before it was removed in the wake of the Mother Emanuel massacre in July 2015. Benjamin Ryan Tillman, a senator and governor of South Carolina at the turn of the twentieth century, fought to consolidate a white supremacist identity unbound by the strictures of class that marked the South Carolina white planter elite’s preferred hierarchy. Tillman shrouded his own wealth and planter background to appeal to the state’s poor whites and to incite the ire of rich, landed whites, who decried his vulgarity. Grego suggests parallels between Tillman’s rise to power and the 2016 presidential election.

5) “The Monuments We Never Built,” by Brian Hamilton, Ph.D. Candidate at UW-Madison

Hamilton reminds us that to understand why our nation celebrates certain aspects of its history, we must also consider what—and, in this case, who—is left out of public commemoration. Hamilton maps out the places in which Hiram Revels, the first African American to serve in the United States Congress, lived and worked. The absence of Revels memorials in the landscapes he inhabited tell us a great deal about how white Americans in positions of power have shaped our nation’s narrative about the Civil War.

6) “Tear Down the Confederates’ Symbols,” by Tyler Zimmer, Visiting Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Northeastern Illinois University

While Zimmer is a philosopher by training, he draws on historians’ work to bring the Confederate flag into the conversation about symbols and monuments. He recounts the flag’s history and reminds the reader of the class dimensions of the Confederacy, productively complicating the history of the Confederacy by pointing out white resistors within it.

7) “An Appeal for Grace: The White Historian’s Responsibility to Radical Empathy and Refuting the ‘Invented Past,'” by Caroline Grego, Ph.D. Candidate at CU-Boulder

We close with a poignant personal essay penned this past spring by Erstwhile Contributing Editor Caroline Grego. Grego, who grew up in South Carolina, writes about the responsibility of white historians to refute invented histories—especially those invoked to justify racist ideologies—and to implement public, radical empathy in their approach to the profession.

 


NOTES

[1] William Link, “Shaping Southern Memory,” Reviews in American History 34 (2006): 188–193.

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