If you’re not from America, the Confederate memorial controversy must seem really confusing. The Confederacy was the losing side of our Civil War. They were the traitors. The bad guys. They were the ones defending slavery. They’re pretty indefensible. And yet we’ve got monuments to them all over the US and military bases named after them and parks dedicated to them – there’s this heroic narrative about the traitors who lost the Civil War that you just don’t have in other countries. History revisionists (which is a loaded term to begin with) would have you believe that is because they really weren’t the bad guys, and they were just fighting for liberty, and the war had nothing to do with slavery, and it was this noble cause and they just HAPPENED to lose, and so we celebrate this part of our heritage because it is romantic and virtuous and righteous. But, honestly, that’s a bunch of claptrap. The war was to defend the institution of slavery. So what are we doing memorializing it?
The answer is at once complicated and simple. It is simple because the answer is white supremacy. That’s not hard. These are monuments to racism. But the complicated part of it is the question of history. What is it? Who tells it? What does it mean? The argument for keeping these monuments in place is that they are historical, and they teach us our history. What history? Why? I want to explore this.
First, let’s talk about some basic facts. These are verifiable, as close to apolitical as it gets. I want to provide some groundwork for us today.
The Confederate States of America lasted from 1861-1865. Not even five years. Seven states were afraid that the institution of slavery was threatened by the election of Abraham Lincoln. So, in order to defend that institution, they decided to secede from the union. These states were eventually joined by four others.
Confederate Vice-President Alexander H. Stephens made the philosophy of the Confederacy, and the reason for the war abundantly clear in his “Cornerstone Address” of March 21, 1861 when he said “[I]ts 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.” He described the Confederacy as being founded upon principles in accordance with the strict divine laws that assigned Black people to the “substratum” of society. This was the cornerstone of their new country.
The Civil War began when the Confederacy attacked on April 12, 1861. No foreign power ever recognized the Confederacy.
These are just basic, observable facts.
Here’s some things we can glean from these facts –
When we talk about the Confederacy we are talking about a very short-lived entity. The Confederacy was around for less than five years. So all of these monuments to history are to a very brief, if traumatic, moment in our history.
Slavery began in America in 1619. It ended in 1865. There are less than a dozen monuments to slavery in the United States. There are over 700 confederate statues. So when we say we are preserving history we are saying something pretty profound about WHAT history we are preserving. More on that in a bit.
It’s really hard to honestly say that the Civil War was about anything other than slavery. And yet people do it all the time. There’s a whole narrative called the “Lost Cause” ideology that is really prevalent in the South that teaches that the war was a noble and just endeavor, and it was about states’ rights, and it was a heroic effort to preserve the Southern way of life (no word on how that DIDN’T include slavery) and teaches that the Civil War was the war of “Northern aggression.”
It’s this romanticization of the Antebellum South – like plantations were some gorgeous, magnolia scented utopia that were worth preserving. But you can’t believe that without wanting to preserve slavery!
So let’s talk about a few things that effect the way we understand these things. I want to talk about public memory and history.
Public memory is, in some ways, just what it sounds like. It’s the choices that people make to remember a particular part of its history. It highlights those parts of history that a people want to remember and give them a narrative that they desire. Public memory is a matter of selection and interpretation. You can’t remember EVERYTHING. So certain things are selected – we choose those things we want to remember – and we interpret them the way we want to interpret them. Public memory is the Instagram of a group of people. These memories are collected and passed from one person to the next – we pass them from generation to generation. And in some sense, we are a public BECAUSE we share these memories. Our shared memories are what bind us together and give us a sense of community It’s one way in which we create an “us.”
For example, if I say, “the good ol’ days” what do you think of?
If you’re my age, you may think of the late 90s, MAYBE early 2000s but you think about when terrorism wasn’t really a thing and the economy was good and music was edgy. There are a lot of Gen X ers out there who have a specific idea of what OUR good ol’ days were and that will affect the national public outlook for many years to come.
But as a NATION what does the good ol’ days mean? When we picture the good ol’ days of America what do we picture?
Andy Griffith? Leave it to Beaver? Donna Reed? Some mythical time when the nuclear family was intact and we were all financially secure and had time to eat dinner together and there was very little crime and communities were tight knit and we trusted authority and government figures, right?
People generally think of the good ol’ days as the 1950s and 60s. Now, this is really easy to critique – this vision of America is incomplete without the coinciding story of segregation and the oppression of women. The oppressive culture of masculinity that lead to what we know as toxic masculinity today that defined that nuclear family of the good ol’ days has to be addressed
But these are just the general critiques – if you think of the good ol’ days as Leave it to Beaver that is an INCREDIBLY selective view of American history. If you think of the 1950s’ and 60s as some paragon of American virtue you are completely leaving out some of the most important parts of American culture of the last century. The 1950s and 60s didn’t JUST give us Andy Griffith – they also gave us Elvis Presley and Marilyn Monroe. They gave us rock n’ roll and the seeds of sexual liberation. They gave us the Beatles and the rest of the British invasion. They gave us the continuing development of jazz and the ever-expanding influence of Black society on white popular culture that would change America for good. The 1950s and 60s was a cultural awakening. The 50s and 60s was sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll. How’s that for the good ol’ days?
So what we remember is selective and interpretive. This is important to understand about things like monuments and memorials because we are choosing what to remember and to highlight. Museums and monuments serve this very purpose. We are taking those bits of history that we think are the best parts of the story and saving them – putting them on display for ourselves and for future generations – saying this is what we want you to know. This is what is important
Sometimes these things serve important purposes – something like the Anne Frank house or the Holocaust museum are incredibly valuable because they remind us of a dark time in our history that we need to make sure we never repeat. We need to remember those who were victims of a terrible oppressor for the purpose of making sure that we don’t allow a similar oppressor to come to power. Remembering the bad parts of our history are important.
But the Confederate monuments don’t serve that purpose. The valorize the Confederacy – they aren’t reminders of a dark time; they are monuments to “Confederate heroes.” They are examples of taking what we think are the best parts of our history and putting them on display, all in the name of heritage.
Calling the Confederacy our “heritage” is silly because it only lasted four years. The heritage is what the Confederacy fought for – and that is white supremacy.
For a long time, people differentiated between history and public memory by saying that public memory subjective and immediate, while history was objective.
That is an incredibly loaded argument.
I was in a historiography class in grad school, which is sort of like a methodology class for history, once an on the first day the professor began with the statement that the study of history is based on the premise that the past can be known. I audibly snorted. This very much offended a number of the people in that class. This started a conversation that would last the entirety of the semester in that class.
There were a number of people in that class who saw themselves as a kind of scientist – unearthing objective fact (whether science is objective is a whole other argument). They thought if they could count the number of cannon balls at the bottom of the ocean then they could accurately describe a naval battle then they could give a factual account of what happened at sea and history could be KNOWN.
Then there was at least one person in the class who defined history as the Stories of Great Men. No kidding that was his actual language. In the early 2000s. Which he saw as an objective telling of history. I don’t know if I even need to explain how ridiculous that is. But it is, in fact, ridiculous.
First, if your history revolves around men then you’re literally missing half the population. And a part that provides the food and the housing and the care and the power for the economy for most of history, to boot.
Secondly, if you are focusing on the stories of “Great” (whatever THAT means) men you are getting a pretty myopic version of history. There are probably a lot of communities and people and important strands of that narrative that explain the world in which we live that get left out of a story that a “Great” man would tell about himself. That’s probably what made him “Great.”
So this teacher asked what I thought history was and I told him it was a rhetorical construction – and you could feel the air go out of the room as the history students took a collective gasp. But I stood my ground.
History, I explained, was a story we told, and it was the selective narrative that had been constructed through symbolic and linguistic choices and affirmed through powerful, systemic forces. There are many histories, and none is more valid than the other except that some have been affirmed by hegemonic forces.
A quick note on hegemony if you don’t know that word: hegemony is the idea that there are certain structures we live with and under that we think of as normal, but in actuality are oppressive. It’s hard to question hegemonic forces because they are just kind of assumed
So, for example a few decades ago it was just considered “natural” that women stayed home and took care of the kids. Questioning that was really radical. Similarly, there are norms today that it seems really radical to question because they are totally “normal” or “natural”. Like sexual politics or race relations, or even state power – these are hegemonic structures.
So history, then, is beholden to hegemony. We use it to bolster those structures and systems which seem normal but are actually just oppressive constructs. That’s why people freak out when new versions of history are told and lose their minds about “revisionist” history. It challenges hegemonic systems. History that tells the story that isn’t of “Great Men” for example, or tells the story of a community other than those in power, constructs a tale that doesn’t affirm the power of those at the top of the system. And that is dangerous.
So history is always political. And always about power.
Side note – My son and I recently read a series of books called the Bartimaeus series by Jonathan Stroud. It’s a YA fantasy series about magicians who rule the world by summoning magical creatures to do their bidding.
In the book there is an underclass of people – commoners who don’t have access to magic who make up the majority of the population.
The book makes a point more than once to talk about how the magicians controlled education – they had laws about what the commoners could read and learn about, but one of the biggest sticking points was history. Commoners learned a specific version of history that was very important to teaching them patriotism and obedience. It was a great way to introduce my son to the concept of propaganda. Until in his somewhat precocious way he asked me, “So…is all history propaganda?” And I just wasn’t sure how to answer that in a 10-year-old appropriate way. Totally my fault for bringing it up.
Anyway – back to MY history class!
So this history professor paused and then told this class of history students that THIS was what they all needed to contend with. If they were going to be historians then they needed to grapple with this idea that history was a story that was told and the teller mattered and the language and the symbols mattered and power mattered and any notions they had about the objectivity of history needed to be re-assessed real fast. And you could see some of those military historians get real uncomfortable.
But this guy, who had spent his life studying the economy, spent the semester trying to drive home to us that history was up for grabs. And we talked a lot about various theories of history and paradigms for telling these stories, but they were all basically about the same thing – these are stories we tell, and we select how we tell and interpret them. It’s why he told his students that any good dissertation draft should start with “Once upon a time…” because ultimately, we’re all just weaving a yarn.
(I was his favorite student)
So how do we differentiate then between history and public memory?
The answer is a little surprising, I think. History is actually more malleable than memory. History is what historians do – it is a reasoned, trained, reconstruction of the past based on evidence and archival research. History is relative and can belong to anybody. Memory is more sacrosanct. Memory is owned and passed down through the generations – history is revised. Memory concentrates itself in places; history seeks to understand things contextually, with all their nuances and complexities. History’s appeal is in evidence and memory’s appeal is in nostalgia and emotion.
If you want to read more about this I would recommend David Blight’s essay “The Civil War in History and in Memory.”
So what, then, are we memorializing with Civil War monuments?
It’s not history, it’s memory.
These are monuments to a collective, public memory of something noble. But that nobility is a total fabrication. If they were monuments to history, they would be monuments to slavery and the horrors of plantation life. But these are monuments to a selective memory of some lost life. And what did we lose when we lost the Civil War?
We lost slavery.
These are monuments to White supremacy. There is no way around that. Even if your argument is that these monuments are a matter of preserving history, admit what history you are preserving – the history that fought to found a country on white supremacy.
These arguments are not historical and academic, but emotional and nostalgic. A monument to that part of our history, to preserve what we need to know, would be like the Holocaust museum – would be a memorial to the victims, not a shrine to the oppressors. These statues of traitorous soldiers and forts named after Confederate “heroes” are serving a particular purpose – they are reminding us of a collective memory we are passing down from one generation to the next. A memory that says these men who fought to defend white supremacy were honorable and noble. This is part of our collective psyche. This is white supremacy IN ACTION.
Defenders of these monuments and memorials claim that critics just don’t know history, but that’s not what it is. It’s that critics have rejected the memory. Critics have looked at historical narratives, which challenge that public memory, and decided that the memory is harmful and oppressive, and history must be dealt with, not nostalgia.
Defenders of these monuments are working from a pretty simple argument:
Things were much better in the past. We had slaves in the past. Therefore, things were much better when we had slaves.
Critics reject that syllogism. Critics recognize the idea that it was better in the past is a hegemonic one – it was better for rich, white, people because they were subsisting on the labor and resources of Black people. It was only better for SOME people. But those some people were in charge so that was the normative narrative. And that’s the kind of history we have been telling for generations. It was always better in the past. It was always better before power was challenged. There was always a good ol’ days. Make America Great Again.
There are lots of people who have decried Trump for not knowing his history. He seemingly didn’t know who Frederick Douglass was, and there were those who gave him the benefit of the doubt about scheduling his rally on Juneteenth in Tulsa, as if that were ignorance, and not malice. But the thing is, Trump doesn’t have to know history. He has to know memory.
Memory is the story that drives the electorate, not history. Most people don’t know history. Most people don’t think history is important to know. But we are deeply invested in memory.
Memory is what we are taught in our history classes.
Memory is what festoons our public places.
Memory is what is behind our holidays and celebrations.
Memory coincides with our mainstream religions.
And memory is sacred, nostalgic, and relatively stable.
And our memory is vested in white supremacy.
So Trump doesn’t need to know history. He just needs to know to appeal to the public he needs to appeal to that unending narrative of white supremacy that is at the heart of so much of our collective psyche and he will be appealing to a large portion of Americans who value that memory.
And so the forts must keep their names. The monuments must stay up. And we say it is in the name of history, even if that history was four indefensible years that would much more reasonably be represented by a monument to Black Americans. But a monument to Black Americans would challenge hegemony. It would challenge the memory, and the on-going narrative, of white supremacy.
And we can’t have that.
If you’re interested in reading some history that challenges the narratives you’re used to hearing I would recommend Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, A Black Women’s History of the United States, by Daina Ramey Berry and Kali Nicole Gross, An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States, by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, and Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, by Ibram X. Kendi.
Look for an extra episode later this week about Bostock v. Clayton County, the gay and transgender rights case that was just decided by the Supreme Court!
Music in this episode is “Fearless First” by Kevin MacLeod at https://incompetech.filmmusic.io/song/3742-fearless-first licensed under CC-BY. Music modified by cutting and fading where appropriate.