Privilege and the historicizing of monuments

Keith Harris steps into the weeds on monuments here, noting how utterly impractical it might be to untangle racist intent from the broader memorial landscape, and pointing to the useful interpretive value of preserving this intent in situ. To leave Confederate monuments in place—with updated interpretation—appears to be the post-Charleston consensus opinion among the right-thinking public history commentariat. It is a way of keeping America’s history of racial segregation and violence at the center of the historical narrative. I count myself among them.

We are all historians. We know things have changed. We have the privilege to look at the history of racism and note the decline in overt violence as, say; segregationists shifted their rhetoric from the language of race to the language of property values. I truly don’t believe, for instance, that people sporting flag-boners on their trucks conceptualize and enact their racial thought the same way their ancestors did in 1876, 1914, or 1960. (Well, not usually.)

But this ability to historicize stands in uncomfortable contrast to the current counter memory that drives this debate. It is not an academic narrative of change from 1865 until now. It is not a narrative that demands patience and reflection. It is a narrative about police killing black people, the uneven application of drug war policies, and the crisis of mass incarceration. It is a narrative to which the fine distinctions between the rhetoric of race and the rhetoric of property values are unimportant because the results are similarly insidious. In the process, this counter narrative collapses historical distance. One thing that Alexander Stephens said in one speech in 1861 is an historical explanation for every damn thing that happened between then and now. Racial policies enacted in 1882 are, essentially, the same as those driving public policy now.

These irritate my historical sensibilities. Where I find nice comfortable distancing and compartmentalization in historical interpretation, this current counter narrative mashes together the past with sociology, with law, with lived experience, with art, with criminal justice, and with critical race theory. Meaning making, then, around these monuments and these flags has been done outside the boundaries of the history discipline.

Here is where I acknowledge my privilege and attempt to set it aside. Here is where I listen to those who, like Frederick Douglass and W.E.B. DuBois before them, are not just trying to counter my academic perspective with another academic perspective, but are trying to tell me something about how all of this fits into their lived experience.

Nathan Baskerville, a representative in the North Carolina General Assembly said recently in a debate over changes to a monument bill,

“What do you see when you look at these monuments? A soldier holding a gun may represent a man fighting for his family and his heritage. But to me, I can’t help but wonder if that gun was used on one of my people.”

A Facebook friend of Kevin Levin’s recently wrote,

“And as a black woman, I’m asked to make the assumption and distinction that whenever I see this symbol outside of a historic place/event or museum, I should assume they just love their ‘heritage’—To ignore my own and the collective shared experiences of my parents and ancestors.

Since my very life depends on it,–no I will not. HELL NO! I will assume you are a white supremacist that believes I am not equal to or deserving of the freedom afforded me as an American whose ancestry runs just as deep as yours. I will presume (UNTIL PROVEN OTHERWISE…) that you mean me and mine harm. Period.”

Richard Talbot of the Easton (MD) Chapter of the NAACP said this of the Confederate monument at the Talbot County Courthouse,

“To keep it as is would send the message…is there really true justice? The courthouse lawn is supposed to be a place where we go for fair and equal trial.”

And I wonder what’s more important, the need for me to properly interpret historical change through a monument to understand the centrality of racial thinking to American history, or the need for an African American man encountering the police or the court system to have some faith that history is not going to plunder him, yet again; or that an African American woman can have some peace that this flag might not, this time, signal immanent harm.

When, then, is justice more important than history?

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