I know that American historians have been wrestling with this question now for several years and it is not my intention here to offer a solution to the problem because I do not have one. I am still thinking this all through and I hope some of our readers might be able to help.
In the wake of mayor Mitch Landrieu‘s decision to remove Confederate and racist monuments from New Orleans, a lot of conservatives have been asking about where we draw the line between acceptable monuments and unacceptable monuments. I think this is a fair question. And it is one that American historians must address.
David Blight hit the op-ed pages in order to pat Landrieu on the back, but a quick Google search (“Landrieu and historians” and “New Orleans monuments and historians”) reveals that very few historians have entered this conversation with complex and nuanced ideas for helping communities think about how to deal with their own controversial monuments. Kevin Levin’s #nolasyllabus is a good start on this front, but there is very little in the “Op-Eds, Editorials” section of this excellent resource that address these theoretical and practical issues. (Some of the readings on “The Memory of Slavery” might be more helpful).
I am sure there is scholarly material on these subjects. So I ask public historians and historians of race and memory:
Where do we draw the line between removing overtly racist monuments and erasing the past?
I am thinking here about Blight’s comment in his interview with the Dallas Morning News:
DMM: Let’s step back from the Confederacy specifically, and consider this subject from a more generic perspective. Whether it’s a statue to Saddam Hussein or whoever else, is there a case against erasing these things because they are part of history, and for looking at them for what they represent about the people who erected them in the first place?
BLIGHT: Yes, of course there is. You can’t erase everything from the past. If you set out to erase every Confederate monument that would take a few lifetimes. But having said that, these things are all about politics and the present.
You mentioned Saddam Hussein: You had a regime that took over a country and ran a brutal dictatorship and fell when he was deposed. It isn’t surprising that monuments were pulled down. The problem with America is that this was a Civil War that involved the whole country, and the South couldn’t go anywhere. The losers were not going to go away. About 6,000 of them went into exile in Brazil and England and Canada and other places, but even some of them came back.
The loser in this war was always going to be here. And the problem was that the “lost cause” tradition that these monuments tend to represent, because that’s when they were put up — the late 19th, early 20th century — gained a deep, deep foothold, and not just in the South.
But there is an argument to be very careful when you erase history. It’s a dangerous thing to do, because next year someone will want to erase history you think should be preserved. We went through all of this at Yale University last year with the changing of the name of Calhoun College.
I agree with Blight when he says that we need to be very careful when we “erase history.” I also understand that monuments are more about the present (or about the time that they were erected) than they are about the past. I am just looking for some scholarly wisdom to help me be more “careful” as I think about these things. What are best practices? Are there best practices?
I will get the conversation started by calling your attention to my Storified tweets on a 2016 American Historical Association plenary session titled “The Confederacy, Its Symbols, and the Politics of Public Culture.” A lot of the issues I have raised in this post were addressed in this session.