Quick report on AHA plenary

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[Edited for grammar and content tweaks.] Currently at the American Historical Association in Atlanta where Jim Grossman and David Blight convened a panel on “The Confederacy, It’s Symbols, and the Politics of Public Culture,” featuring historians who have worked on issues of Confederate monuments and memory. I’ll offer a quick rundown.

Blight introduced the panel and offered (intentionally or not) the theme of the evening—in the spectrum of “do nothing,” to “erase history,” where do we “draw the line” on monuments? He is certain that it is a moral line and not just an interpretive one. To a great extent this is a pointless debate because each monument has its own particular context and particular legal constraints in vastly different communities. To that end there is nothing here that moves the discussion forward (for historians that is. Some in the public would appreciate these demarcations.)

Fitz Brundage noted that the present debates—a generation old now—arise from the south being forced to confront pluralism. (Agreed!) After a discussion of Stone Mountain and other locations unlikely to be changed, he suggested a hierarchical inventory of monuments, with certain levels “targeted” for removal. He didn’t particularly dwell on what characterizes the various strata of the inventory. But his eye is on a larger goal, “a project to create a pluralist South” through a renovation of the memorial landscape. That was a general consensus of the panel. More on that in a bit.

Diana Ramey Berry spoke of her service on the committee to recommend moves to the Confederate (and Woodrow Wilson) statues at the University of Texas at Austin, and the challenges that process offered her as a trained historian. She discovered that the student activists that drove the conversation made tenuous historian connections between the monuments and “other issues” that, as an historian, she’s not comfortable with. Oh, boy, I have a post coming on that very topic and I wish the panel would have taken that up. She asked after the role of the historian in these moments and suggested that we must maintain a distinction between disciplinary history and sacred memory and offer historical context for the issues at hand. Ok. I don’t disagree.

Jane Turner Censer followed with some of that historical distinguishing with a review of Ladies Memorial Associations and the UDC and their respective intentions in erecting memorials. She suggested that the intent (memorialization of grief with the former and celebration of disunity and white supremacy with the later) serve as “the line” between removal and maintenance. In think Thomas Brown offers a far more complex view of intentionality in this history, but the basic idea sounds like a good benchmark, useful to anyone wanting guidance.

John Coski finished with a reminder of historians’ role in these debates—to make clear analytical distinctions and add sophistication in order to elevate the tone of the debate, and to work toward a pluralistic memorial landscape without “erasing” history.

Talk of “erasing” history within the context of an appeal to add sophistication to an argument is weird. Otherwise a decent discussion on where “the line” is, in the abstract (I probably shouldn’t be casting shade at abstract arguments considering the post below!) Wearing my public historian hat, I’d have to say I’m a bit disappointed. It was about the monumental landscape and not about how we use our historian tools to effect conversation, understanding, and learning between diverse audiences in institutional settings. Also, I wanted more recognition of how historians need to turn their analytical skills to understand and explain the messy conflation that define public historical needs now, and not just fall back on contextualizing historical events. In this, I am reminded of Carol Kammen’s call to “listen to others…and let go of the agenda.”

The idea of a pluralist memorial landscape is neat and I’m for it (even if it makes me think of this.) Brundage noted the implausibility of a rival or complementary landscape considering the cost and southern legislatures’… um…frugality. These are the same legislative bodies I mentioned below, likely to be hostile to the cultural project. (To that end, I know historians will argue for the primacy of historical power in our own lives, but I’d like to see a further discussion of the links between, say, Confederate monuments and the need for reform of the criminal justice system…and if and why renovating the landscape will have a practical effect on current injustices.) But I question the goal of a pluralistic monumental landscape for other reasons. The landscapes we do have are of a certain time, are place-based, and demand consensus. Today we aren’t moved by monuments (I could be wrong), place based communities are fragmented and reconstituted in a globally networked cyberspace, and this is a post-consensus, market segmented, society. Would a pluralistic memorial landscape, if doable, even work in this world?

An audience member asked how we replace old myths with new pluralistic ones. I think our historians’ intentions barely matter. The tide of demographic transformation, and cultural fragmentation and re-coalescence, will create new myths for us. Will historians and museums be able to keep up?

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