Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Confederate Statues: A History Lesson

President Donald Trump displays his ignorance of American history in his recent tweets about statues celebrating the Confederacy. It will be the responsibility of teachers, returning to school soon, to ensure that the President's ignorance does not gain traction and spread. Here is what he said through his favorite communication medium, Twitter:


I will agree with the President that you can't change history, but you can learn from it. What should school children learn from the controversy over Confederate statues? The first lesson to be learned, I believe, is that these statues were not intended as art or as a commemoration of Confederate "heroes", but as tools of intimidation and propaganda. The statues were built, largely during two periods 1890 - 1930 and the 1960s. The first period coincided with the rise of the Ku Klux Klan and the second period was during the Civil Rights Movement. 

The message was clear during both these periods. The statues were built to glorify white supremacy and to stand as a constant reminder to African Americans that they were not welcome to equality in the South even if the South had lost the Civil War. As the artist Austin Pendleton put it in a New York Times article,

These are not works of art; they're propaganda. To equate them with how a work of art exists in the world is a false equation. They're instruments of a political agenda and it would be real folly to suggest that there is any kind of ambiguity.


Like all monuments, these statues say more about the time they were erected than the historical era they evoke. The great waves of Confederate monument building took place in the 1890s, as the Confederacy was coming to be idealized as the so-called Lost Cause and the Jim Crow system was being fastened upon the South, and in the 1920s, the height of black disenfranchisement, segregation and lynching. The statues were part of the legitimation of an exclusionary definition of America.

The "culture" that Mr. Trump sees being "ripped apart" is not "our" culture, but the culture of a defeated ideology, an ideology of white supremacy, an ideology that says one race has the right to subjugate another, an ideology that says one race is somehow a lesser race than another, an ideology that says that one race can abuse another with impunity. This is not a culture we need to be celebrating.

But is a legacy we need to remember, because the horror of this legacy must stand as a cautionary tale for all Americans in the future. We can remember that history by placing these statues in historical context. About 10 years ago I had a chance to visit Budapest, Hungary. Hungary, you will remember, was under the control of the Soviet Union from the end of WWII until 1990. The Soviets put down a revolution in Hungary in 1956, brutally and bloodily. 

The Soviets constructed dozens of statues celebrating Communism in the occupied city of Budapest. After the Soviets were kicked out, the city fathers wanted the statuary symbols of their subjugation out of the city, but they did not want to "destroy" history. They wanted future generations to remember what had happened to them, so they moved the statues out of town to a place called Memento Park, where they could be viewed altogether in a context that made the history of Soviet repression clear. 

We could do the same with the Confederate statues. They belong in a park or museum where they can be given the proper context. Where future generations can learn about a shameful part of our history and where they cannot stand as continuing symbols of subjugation and hate. 

As teachers the monument controversy offers a teachable moment that goes to the heart of the American ideal. Are we a country of inclusion or a country of exclusion? Are we a country with an open mind, unafraid to confront our shameful past in the hopes that it leads to a better future? Are we a country that truly aspires to the ideals outlined in the Declaration of Independence and Constitution? Or are we a country with a narrow mind, consumed by fear, hate, and base self-interest?

Yes, Mr. President, we can learn from this history. I hope you will. I hope our school students will. I hope we all will.