David Blight on Reinhold Niebuhr, Theology, and a Bunch of Other Things

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Over at Zocalo Public Square, Gregory Rodriguez talks with Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David Blight about history, memory, Reinhold Niebuhr and history as theology.  Here is a taste:

You quote Reinhold Niebuhr early on [in Race and Reunion], “The processes of historical justice are not exact enough to warrant the simple confidence of the moral character of history.” What do you understand that to mean?

Well Niebuhr was trying to tell us to have humility. He comes from that deep Protestant tradition of humility. He’s trying to tell us to be careful about our certitudes, but he’s also arguing, never lose sight of the essential tragic character of history. We’re all part of it. We’re all capable of good and evil, and especially evil.

Niebuhr, the theologian philosopher, helps one understand that history is, one, never over—that history’s a very messy, complicated thing, and at its core is our human potential for tragedy. That if we ever lose sight of that—especially I think Niebuhr was arguing this as an American, to Americans. Because by and large—here’s one of your deep American myths—we don’t like the word even. We tend to use it in superficial ways. We tend not to want to view our own past as essentially tragic. I mean, we’re willing to view Russian history, if we know it, as tragic. We’re willing to view modern German history as tragic. What about our past?

Americans are always demanding—this is what Niebuhr’s trying to point out—Americans are always trying to imagine our past as always somehow progress. We are the people of progress. California is about renewal, it’s about always starting over, it’s about progress, and it has been of course. Our task as historians, our task as teachers, is to help people understand that history is always a combination of these things.

Of course there’s progress, but as soon as you think you’ve won something, as soon as you think you’ve turned that great corner of history, or as Obama used to love to quote King saying, who was really quoting Theodore Parker from the 19th century, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” Every time I heard Obama say that I would think to myself, “No, it doesn’t. No, it doesn’t. Come on, and you know that.” Of course, a president has to say that, at least a thoughtful president does. Lo and behold what happens? We get a Donald Trump elected, and people are still in shock, wondering how we could go from such progress to this.

Do you consideRace and Reunion a theological work? To the extent that you are tinkering with major American theologies, and you’ve said there are three visions of this war, this war that, in Garry Wills’ words, “revolutionized the revolution.” There was the emancipationist, there was white supremacy, and there was reconciliation, but are you sifting through the theologies to create a new one?

Not consciously, necessarily. I am deeply aware that American history has theological roots. All you’ve got to do is study the Puritans for one week. All you’ve got to do is look at the American founding. The American Revolution is layered with theological rhetoric, even in the hands of people like a Jefferson or a Madison, who were not very deeply religious. They saw themselves in teleological time. They saw themselves creating something that was partly of divine inspiration.

I’m not trying to create a new theology. I am trying to help, I hope, the reader understand that narratives of the American past are never without this—like it or not—never without this theological underlay of a nation with some kind of special destiny and design. Look at our rhetoric through time. Look at presidential rhetoric through time. Look at Reinhold Niebuhr, who comes from the more tragic Protestant tradition, or more realist tradition. Nevertheless, Americans have never been able to crawl out of this idea that we are somehow living our history in some kind of religious or theological time.

However, our greatest events probably are caught up in a kind of a theological history. We just can’t seem to help it. Look at the rhetoric of World War II.

Read the rest the entire interview here.

 

David Brion Davis, RIP

 

David Brion Davis, the Yale historian of slavery and race in America, has died. I never met him, but his books were a ubiquitous presence on my graduate-school reading lists.

Here is historian and Davis colleague David Blight‘s reflection:

David Brion Davis has passed after a long illness.  The historical profession, the GLC, and countless friends have lost a giant of a figure.  The GLC team and network of hundreds of scholars, teachers, and readers send our condolences to Toni Davis and their two sons, Adam and Noah.  David still read books on a Kindle until a few months before his death.  In his room in Guilford, CT he was especially proud of pointing to the photograph on the wall of himself and Barack and Michelle Obama, taken at the White House on the night he received the National Humanities Medal from the President.  David’s trilogy on the problem of slavery in western culture remains a monument to Professor Davis’s extraordinary and singular quest to understand the ideas surrounding slavery and its abolition across the Atlantic world over more than two centuries.  His many other works and his essays in the New York Review of Books made a mark on American and international history like few other historians anywhere in the second half of the 20th and early 21st centuries.  David was the founding and emeritus director of the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance and Abolition.  He was an intellectual in pursuit of truth and wisdom.  In his presence one always learned something. He was a deeply spiritual man who saw the historian’s craft as a search for the minds and souls of people in the past.  He devoted his life and career to understanding the place of the inhumane but profoundly important and persistent practices of slavery and racism in the world.  He was a philosopher at heart, a lyrical writer, and defined why we do history.  We stand on his shoulders.  At the GLC we carry on his legacy every day.  We loved him.  His portrait hangs on the wall at the GLC amidst a large portion of his book collection, still containing his post-its, book marks and thousands of annotations.  We will always have him nearby.

David Blight and Lisa Brooks Win the Bancroft Prize

BrooksBlights wins for Frederick Douglass, Prophet of Freedom.

Brooks wins for Our Beloved Kin: A New History of King Philip’s War.

Congratulations!

Here is a taste of an article on the winners at The New York Times:

A mammoth biography of Frederick Douglass and a new study of the 17th-century colonial American conflict known as King Philip’s War have won this year’s Bancroft Prize, which is considered one of the most prestigious honors in the field of American history.

David W. Blight’s “Frederick Douglass, Prophet of Freedom,”published by Simon and Schuster, was cited for offering “a definitive portrait” of the 19th-century former slave, abolitionist, writer and orator “in all his fullness and imperfection, his intellectual gifts and emotional needs.”

Lisa Brooks’s “Our Beloved Kin,” published by Yale University Press, was praised for how it “imaginatively illuminates submerged indigenous histories,” drawing readers into “a complex world of tensions, alliances and betrayals” that fueled the conflict between Native Americans in New England and European colonists and their Indian allies.

The Bancroft, which includes an award of $10,000, was established in 1948 by the trustees of Columbia University, with a bequest from the historian Frederic Bancroft.

Blight

 

David Blight on Memory, History, and Hope

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I just came across this great Martha Hodes’s interview of David Blight, author of Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom (among many other books).

In this exchange, Blight talks about the importance of memory:

MH: Memory is a theme that runs deeply through your work, David. And of course, memories of the Civil War mattered deeply to Frederick Douglass. What memory of the war did Douglass want to endure? And then what happened to Douglass’s vision in the aftermath of the war, which is in many ways the subject of your book Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory?

DB: I was confused about what to do with this idea of memory. We all know that memory is a biological thing. We can’t find our car or our keys or our home from here if we don’t have a memory, and it’s why the memory diseases are so terrifying, because our very humanity depends on this quality of memory.

On the other hand, we also are aware, as historians, that memory is a social creation. There are collective memories. Lots of memory scholars love to debate whether there is such a thing as collective memory, and how do you know a collective memory when you meet one, and so on, but we do know they exist. Institutions build memories. People create memories. Churches create memories. Nations create memories. And all that really means is that they create narratives. They create stories that go to battle with other stories.

Now, in Douglass’s case, he was trying to preserve, to hold on to, to keep fashioning and refashioning, a narrative of the Civil War that said the destruction of slavery, emancipation, and the creation of black equality are at the absolute center, are at the core of Union victory. The nation was saved and preserved, but the way it was saved and preserved was by destroying slavery and creating four million new citizens with rights.

And he lives long enough, as we said earlier, to see that victory eroding, first in Reconstruction and then directly betrayed by certain Supreme Court decisions, especially the Cruikshank case in 1876 and the civil rights cases in 1883, and then eventually not only eroded, but defeated by the use of violence and terror by the Southern Democrats and by the Ku Klux Klan and its many imitators. He lives long enough to see even the terrible problem of lynching at its peak by the early to mid-1890s.

And here is a nice exchange on the importance of history:

MH: So let me ask you this, David. Let’s talk about studying history, learning history, reading history, at this moment. Why does it matter? Why does history matter? Why does the 19th century matter? Why does the Civil War matter?

DB: Well, hopefully we don’t skirt this with clichés, but of course learning some history is the only way to know who we are, how we got here, where we might be going, although we’re bad at predicting, we historians.

MH: Clearly.

DB: We’re asked all the time, but we’re really bad at predicting. But mostly, I think, history gives a person a sensibility. It gives them a way of understanding how to ask questions. It gives them a way of scrutinizing both evidence and narrative, evidence and the story. Why am I being told that story by politicians or by the press or by whomever? What’s it based on? You study enough history, you begin to realize it is ultimately about interpretation rooted to some kind of evidence, and it means that that interpretation is always changing. It’s baffling and befuddling, and people don’t like it sometimes. They want to just know, what happened? “Just tell me.”

And hope:

DB: But back to your point about tragedy: the whole point of tragedy is that tragedy is a way of viewing the world. I think to have a solid sense of tragedy about the human condition, and about history, is the real source of hope. It prepares you for when the next cataclysm might come, and when something even like 9/11, which was so cataclysmic, occurs, to know that it is not original. It’s happened throughout history that people have attacked civilians on a mass scale. It happened in the Trojan War. It’s happened ever since.

The more you know that, the more prepared you are for those times when it may actually happen to you. That was James Baldwin’s definition of what it meant to have a sense of history.

MH: Beautiful.

DB: I loved his answer when he was asked: what is a sense of history? He said: you think something has only happened to you, and then you realize it happened to Dostoyevsky a hundred years ago, and it’s especially important for a young person to know that they are, therefore, not alone.

To have a sense of history means you’re not alone. You know enough of the past to know that things that happen have happened before. You’re not alone in this story.

Read the entire interview here.

The Best Black History Books of 2018

Jones BlackAs picked by the editors of Black Perspectives.

Authors include Martha Jones, Julius Scott, David Blight, Lillian Barger, Daina Ramey Berry, Keisha Berry, Gerald Horne, and Imani Perry.

Subjects include: slavery in antebellum America, the Haitian Revolution, Frederick Douglass, liberation theology, the slave trade, black nationalism, African Americans in the military, Black Lives Matter, and W.E.B. Du Bois.

See the list here.

David Blight on Frederick Douglass

BlightAs many of you know, Blight is the author of the recently released Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom I was hoping to read Blight’s book before I teach Douglass’s Narrative in a couple of weeks, but I don’t think I am going to have the time.

Here is a taste of an interview with Blight at History News Network:

Q. You worked on this book for ten years, but first began researching Douglass as a PhD student. What initially inspired you to study Douglass? Did you always plan to write a biography of Douglass?   

After that first book in the late 1980s, and over time, I edited new editions of Douglass’s first and second autobiographies, a new edition of the Columbian Orator (the book that changed Douglass’s life as a slave), and I had written a number of essays on the former slave.  But I did not really intend to write a full biography until I encountered the Evans collection in Savannah.  Only then did I decide to attempt a full life of Douglass.  I was initially inspired to study Douglass in graduate school in the early 1980s because I wanted to research and write about abolitionists and the coming of the Civil War.  I especially wanted to probe the stories of black abolitionists. Douglass was the greatest perhaps of all abolitionists, and I was especially drawn to the famous orator and writer’s masterful use of words.  The research for this biography took me many places and to many archives in the US and the UK.  The places in Douglass’s life are very important to his biography.

Read the rest here.

*Black Perspectives* Will Host a Forum on Frederick Douglass

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This is going to be good.  The forum will include posts by Brandon Byrd, Kenneth Morris, Neil Roberts, Manisha Sinha, David Blight, Leigh Fought, Christopher Bonner, and Noelle Trent.

Here is what you can expect:

Black Perspectives, the award-winning blog of the African American Intellectual History Society (AAIHS), is hosting an online forum on Frederick Douglass on the occasion of the 200th anniversary of his birth. Organized by Brandon R. Byrd (Vanderbilt University), the online forum uses the 200th anniversary of Douglass’s birth as an opportunity to highlight commemorative, critical reflections, and assessments of Douglass’s ideas and legacy. The forum will feature an interview with Kenneth B. Morris, the great-great-great grandson of Frederick Douglass (and the great-great-grandson of Booker T. Washington). It will also feature essays from Neil Roberts (Williams College); Manisha Sinha (University of Connecticut); David Blight (Yale University); Leigh Fought (Le Moyne College); Noelle Trent (National Civil Rights Museum); and Christopher Bonner (University of Maryland, College Park). The forum begins on Monday, November 26, 2018 and concludes on Friday, November 30, 2018.

During the week of the online forum, Black Perspectives will publish new blog posts every day at 5:30AM EST. Please follow Black Perspectives (@BlkPerspectives) and AAIHS (@AAIHS) on Twitter; like AAIHS on Facebook; or subscribe to our blog for updates. By subscribing to Black Perspectives, each new post will automatically be delivered to your inbox during the week of the forum.

Learn more here.

Still More on John Kelly’s Civil War Comments

Compromise

In addition to my analysis of Kelly’s remarks and Carole Emberton’s Washington Post op-ed, I also want to call your attention to Jennifer Schuessler’s New York Times piece on this controversy.  It is a nice overview of the various compromises that took place from the drafting of the Constitution in 1787 to the outbreak of Civil War in 1861.  She quotes David Blight, Manisha Sinha, and David Waldstreicher.

Read it here.

Thoughts on John Kelly’s Civil War Comments

DHS Secretary John F. Kelly holds and ICE Town Hall

I am teaching the Civil War this semester.  In fact, I have class tonight.  I am thinking of starting the class with John Kelly’s recent claim that the Civil War was caused by “the lack of an ability to compromise.”

I watched the video of Kelly’s interview with Laura Ingraham of Fox News.  In that video he said that “Robert E. Lee was an honorable man.”  He added, “He was a man that gave up his country to fight for his state, which 150 years ago was more important than country.  It was always loyalty to state back in those days.  Now it’s different today.”  And then came this: “But the lack of ability to compromise led to the Civil War, and men and women of good faith on both sides made their stand where their conscience had them make their stand.”

A few thoughts about Kelly’s remarks:

  1. Secession, and eventually civil war, occurred because the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860 threatened a Southern way of life defined by chattel slavery and white supremacy.  Not convinced?  I invite you to read Charles Dew’s Apostles of Disunion: Southern Secession Commissioners and the Causes of the Civil War.  My students just finished it.
  2. Was Robert E. Lee an honorable man?  Perhaps.  I am sure that many in the South saw him as an honorable man because he was willing to join the Virginia secession movement and fight for the Southern way of life as described above.  “Loyalty to state” meant loyalty to slavery and white supremacy.  The loyalty Lee may have had to home, place, roots, family, or local community–all virtuous ideals in the abstract–was made possible by the wealth that came from slave labor.  For these reasons, Lee chose treason.
  3. Kelly is partially correct.  The Civil War did come about by a lack of compromise.  The South refused to compromise with northern Republicans like Lincoln who wanted to stop the spread of slavery.  At the start of the war Lincoln, an ardent unionist, would have gladly compromised with the Southern states where slavery already existed in order to keep the union together.  See, for example, his December 22, 1860 letter to Georgia Governor (and eventually Confederate V.P.) Alexander Stephens
  4. Kelly is also correct when he says that “men and women of good faith on both sides made their stand where their conscience had them make their stand.” The men and women of the south made their stand because their conscience (which was informed by their understanding of Protestant Christianity) led them to believe that slavery and white supremacy was right.  Lincoln followed his conscience as well.  He believed the Union must be preserved.  Abolitionists followed their consciences too.  They believed that slavery was an abomination.
  5.  And let’s also remember, as historian David Blight has shown us, that “compromise” was what brought the Union back together after the Civil War.  This was a compromise that the Union made with white supremacists in the South.  A compromise that led to Jim Crow and segregation.

In the end, one cannot ignore the fact that Kelly has made these statements in the wake of what happened in Charlottesville.  (He actually plays the “both sides” card again, much like his boss had done in the days following the race rioting in Charlottesville).  In this sense, his remarks are more than just historical musings.  They send a clear political message.

Confederate Monuments Get Their Day in Congress

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Over at AHA Today, Dane Kennedy reports on a congressional briefing about what to do with Confederate monuments.

Here is a taste:

A standing-room-only crowd gathered at the Rayburn House Office Building to hear three leading authorities on the subject—David Blight, director of the Gilder Lehrman Center at Yale University; Karen Cox, professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte; and Gaines Foster, LSU Foundation Professor of History at Louisiana State University. James Grossman, executive director of the American Historical Association, chaired the event….

How, asked a congressional staffer, does one respond to those who argue that the removal of Confederate statues erases history? It isn’t history that the statues’ defenders want to preserve, Blight insisted, but a memory that distorts or denies history. Cox made a similar point, noting that these monuments celebrate a sanitized version of history that obscures the centrality of slavery and white supremacy to the “Lost Cause.”

Another person asked, so what should be done with the monuments? Options include placing them in museums, contextualizing them with historical labeling, and collecting them at a single site, such as Stone Mountain. James Grossman pointed out that the Russians adopted the latter strategy with their Fallen Monument Park, where they relocated statues of Soviet leaders. In response to a related question about how public arts programs can alter historical narratives, Grossman recommended monuments that present the Civil War as a war of liberation for blacks. Blight suggested memorials to the black churches that sustained African American communities in the South and “elegiac” monuments that highlight the horrific slaughter of the Civil War. But he also cautioned against any precipitate action, urging deliberation in dealing with Confederate monuments. Foster struck a similar note, pointing out that public opinion on the issue needs to change. Cox was blunter: the removal of these monuments, she stated, will not bring an end to the systemic racism that inspired them.

Read the entire piece here.

David Blight: “If we do this some willy-nilly way, we will regret it.”

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Should the statue of former Philadelphia mayor Frank Rizzo come down?

The debate over Confederate monuments continues.  Associated Press reporter Colleen Long recently interviewed a few historians on the matter, including Yale historian David Blight.  Here is a taste of her article:

The national soul-searching over whether to take down monuments to the Confederacy’s demigods has extended to other historical figures accused of wrongdoing, including Christopher Columbus (brutality toward Native Americans), the man for whom Boston’s Faneuil Hall is named (slave trader) and former Philadelphia Mayor Frank Rizzo (bigotry).

Historians interviewed by The Associated Press offered varying thoughts about where exactly the line should be drawn in judging someone’s statue-worthiness, but they agreed on one thing: Scrapping a monument is not a decision that should be made in haste during political fervor.

 

“If we do this in some willy-nilly way, we will regret it,” cautioned Yale University historian David Blight, an expert on slavery. “I am very wary of a rush to judgment about what we hate and what we love and what we despise and what we’re offended by.”

Blight and other historians say the way to determine whether to remove these monuments, Confederate or otherwise, is through discussions that weigh many factors, among them: the reason behind when and why the monument was built. Where it’s placed. The subject’s contribution to society weighed against the alleged wrongdoing. Historical significance. And the artistic value of the monument itself.

Some historians also say a statue in a public place can serve an important educational purpose, even if the history is ugly, that might be lost if the monument were junked or consigned to a museum.

“By taking monuments down or hiding them away, we facilitate forgetting,” said Alfred Brophy, a law professor at the University of Alabama who has been studying the issue. “It purchases absolution too inexpensively. There is a value in owning our history.”

Read the rest here.

Are We Headed For Another Civil War?

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Historians Judith Giesberg, David Blight, Gregory Downs, and Eric Foner weigh-in on this question with New Yorker writer Robin Wright.

Here is a taste:

Before Charlottesville, David Blight, a Yale historian, was already planning a conference in November on “American Disunion, Then and Now.” “Parallels and analogies are always risky, but we do have weakened institutions and not just polarized parties but parties that are risking disintegration, which is what happened in the eighteen-fifties,” he told me. “Slavery tore apart, over fifteen years, both major political parties. It destroyed the Whig Party, which was replaced by the Republican Party, and divided the Democratic Party into northern and southern parts.”

“So,” he said, “watch the parties” as an indicator of America’s health.

In the eighteen-fifties, Blight told me, Americans were not good at foreseeing or absorbing the “shock of events,” including the Fugitive Slave Act, the Supreme Court’s Dred Scott decision, the John Brown raid, and even the Mexican-American War. “No one predicted them. They forced people to reposition themselves,” Blight said. “We’re going through one of those repositionings now. Trump’s election is one of them, and we’re still trying to figure it out. But it’s not new. It dates to Obama’s election. We thought that would lead culture in the other direction, but it didn’t,” he said. “There was a tremendous resistance from the right, then these episodes of police violence, and all these things [from the past] exploded again. It’s not only a racial polarization but a seizure about identity.”

Generally, Blight added, “We know we are at risk of civil war, or something like it, when an election, an enactment, an event, an action by government or people in high places, becomes utterly unacceptable to a party, a large group, a significant constituency.” The nation witnessed tectonic shifts on the eve of the Civil War, and during the civil-rights era, the unrest of the late nineteen-sixties and the Vietnam War, he said. “It did not happen with Bush v. Gore, in 2000, but perhaps we were close. It is not inconceivable that it could happen now.”

In a reversal of public opinion from the nineteen-sixties, Blight said, the weakening of political institutions today has led Americans to shift their views on which institutions are credible. “Who do we put our faith in today? Maybe, ironically, the F.B.I.,” he said. “With all these military men in the Trump Administration, that’s where we’re putting our hope for the use of reason. It’s not the President. It’s not Congress, which is utterly dysfunctional and run by men who spent decades dividing us in order to keep control, and not even the Supreme Court, because it’s been so politicized.”

Read the entire piece here.

Blight: Historians Should Petition Trump to Take an “Educational Sabbatical” So He Can Learn More U.S. History

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History News Network has published a David Blight piece which original appeared at the website of the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center.  Of all the things Trump has done, Blight is most worried about his “essential ignorance” of American history.

Here is a taste of his piece, originally titled “Trump and History: Ignorance and Denial“:

Trump’s “learning” of American history must have stopped a long time ago. I wish I could say this is funny and not deeply disturbing. Perhaps his grasp of American history rather reflects his essential personality, which seems to be some combination of utter self-absorption, a lack of empathy, and a need to believe in or rely upon hyper individualism. President Trump does seem to possess an instinct for the feelings, fears, resentments, and base level aspirations of many Americans who are displeased at best with the country and the kind of society that has developed over the past decades, especially since the civil rights and women’s rights revolutions. He further has an instinct for how and why so many white Americans were uncomfortable or downright furious that a black man could be elected President. The “birther” effort that he led stoked a kind of 21st century racism that appeals to a vast audience of suburban and rural America that takes its information and its values from Fox News and its many media allies. And we must give him credit for capturing the political sentiments of the displaced and the neglected in our globalized economy and in our identity-obsessed culture. They do need a voice. To pull that off as a celebrity billionaire may say more about the culture and social values we have all participated in forging more than it says about him. 

Trump has political instinct but little in the way of political knowledge of either institutions or history. Why does this matter? Well, if a President makes history, which he can and does on any given day, he should know some history.  He must be able to think in time, to think by analogy, precedent, and comparison.  He needs perspective in order to find wisdom.  Decisions ought never be made in a vacuum. A President certainly needs to think anew about old problems, but how can any holder of that office consider Middle East peace, or relations with a nuclear or non-nuclear Iran, or the immediate threat of the bizarre North Korean regime, or the social collapse of Venezuela, or the possible dismantling of the European Union, or the increasing rise of Vladimir Putin’s expansionist authoritarianism if he is adrift in history, believing only that great problems are solved by great strong men?  President Trump’s uses of the past – nonsensical throw away lines about the revelation that Lincoln was a Republican, or that Frederick Douglass had been “doing an amazing job,” and now that no one bothers to think about “why was there the Civil War” are not merely matters of temperament. They are dangerous examples of ignorance in high places. And we must not let this kind of presidential mis-use and denial of history become normalized or merely the object of humor.  Satire is our only tool sometimes, but good satire has always been a very serious weapon at the end of the day.  Jackson was too important in American history to be so loosely and ignorantly invoked by the President. For students of the Civil War era, we might even conclude, contra Trump, that had Jackson lived to the time of the Civil War, not only would he have not prevented the conflict, his fellow Tennessean, General Nathan Bedford Forrest, the notorious cavalry leader, might have been out of a job.

The historical profession might consider petitioning the President to take a one or two month leave of absence, VP Pence steps in for that interim, and Trump goes on a retreat in one of his resorts for an educational sabbatical.  If he must be President for three and a half more years, we need him to be able to make sense when he speaks of the past.  Sometimes CEOs or university presidents need a break from the daily grind.  The President’s staff could choose a few historians to go to the retreat and the American Historical Association could choose a few more.  A crash course in reading, or perhaps just in watching documentary films, about the history of American foreign policy as well as the history of slavery and race relations in particular could be the core of the curriculum.  Some biographies, a good history of women and gender, a genuine tutorial on the Civil Rights era, and even a serious digestion of good works on the Gilded Age and the New Deal legacies might be required.  And finally, a primer on Constitutional history would be essential too, and might make that second month necessary.  This alone could garner the United States again some confidence and respect around the world.   And, one further thing, no tweeting on educational leave.  There will be a test at the end of the term.

 

Read the entire piece here.

Removing Monuments: How Far Should We Go?

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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.

In Praise of New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu

Yale Civil War-era historian David Blight salutes Landrieu’s willingness to look straight into his city’s past and do something about it.

Here is a taste of his powerful Atlantic piece “The Battle for Memorial Day in New Orleans“:

It is difficult for historians to favor monument destruction or removal. We worry endlessly about historical erasure or purposeful ignorance of any kind. We favor debate however conflicted, and new memorials that augment or change the narratives told on our public landscapes. But I nod with understanding and approval when the mayor asks: “Why are there no slave ship monuments, no prominent markers on public land to remember the lynchings or the slave blocks; nothing to remember this long chapter of our lives; the pain, the sacrifice, the shame … all of it happening on the soil of New Orleans?” For half a century and more American historians of all stripes have written and taught newer, more inclusive, and yes, often darker histories such as Landrieu advocates. But it is essentially true that these histories of pain and tragedy, destruction and survival, do by and large await public memorials. They are receiving public museum exhibition and exposure. But in great civic monuments, not so much. The massacre in Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston in June 2015 took America on this new tortured, surprising path to Confederate flag and monument removals. Where and when it ends Americans do not know. More than any other Southern politician, Landrieu has expressed this reckoning with the Civil War’s legacy in a newly eloquent honesty. Americans ought to debate how best to take up his call. Many great and challenging monuments, both old and new, exist in the United States. The world wars, the Irish famine, the Vietnam War, the civil-rights movement, the attacks on 9/11, the Holocaust, and even the Civil War itself have inspired brilliant works of public art. But Americans have to know more history in order to learn to think about them more imaginatively.

The monuments in New Orleans, relocated to warehouses or holding stations and gone from view, are now the subjects of a new time, new imperatives, indeed even alternative victory narratives. Landrieu and the forces of popular support as well as the City Council have just declared the Confederacy, as the mayor put it, “lost and we’re better for it.” The “four year aberration called the Confederacy,” Landrieu said, ought never again to be celebrated even if never forgotten. His city, he maintained, ought never to embrace publically a “sanitized Confederacy,” held together by Orwellian language about history and “marinated in historical denial.” These are high ambitions about how America can actually heal the past and find justice. Much higher even that Lee’s statue stood. Landrieu invoked many of the best voices possible to his cause: Thomas Jefferson’s preamble in the Declaration of Independence, Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, Abraham Lincoln from the ending of the Second Inaugural, and George W. Bush as he honored the opening of the new African American history museum in Washington, DC.

It remains to be seen how neo-Confederates will take their latest defeats. They have a fledgling, unsteady, ahistorical victory narrative to follow now in the presidency and the White House. But Landrieu, with Dylann Roof and a host of many other major players, progressive and regressive in their aims, may have taken America into a truly new era of Civil War remembrance. Americans may never find e pluribus unum in their political lives. But we can surely keep striving to write, teach and know about our pluribus. American politics is an impossible distance from ever knowing how to be “out of one, many,” but the history keeps changing on us, keeps becoming many, forcing us to, as the mayor suggested: “By God, just think.”. Monuments, those removed after more than a century of struggle, or those erected in a new era with new histories, may never accomplish as Mayor Landrieu hopes, “making straight what has been crooked and making right what has been wrong.” But if this process makes Americans learn and think about our history more knowingly and reflectively, if painfully, it is all for the good.

Read the entire article here.

David Blight on New Orleans and Civil War Legacy

Lee

Yale historian David Blight talks to The Dallas Morning News about Confederate monuments, New Orleans, and the legacy of the Civil War in this city.

Here is a taste of the interview:

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?

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.

Read the entire interview here.

 

Was Frederick Douglass a Refugee?

Some of you may remember Donald Trump’s reference to Frederick Douglass during last week’s remarks about Black History Month.

In case you missed it:

These comments from Trump and later his press secretary Sean Spicer have prompted many historians to wonder if they realize that Douglass passed away in 1895.

I am not sure if Trump was correct when he said that Douglass is “being recognized more and more.”  Historians can debate that point.  But I am reasonably certain that since he referenced Douglass the reputation of this former-slave and abolitionist has skyrocketed.

On the day Trump made his statement about Douglass I started the #douglassfortrump hashtag and began to tweet Douglass quotes for the purpose of educating the POTUS about the great abolitionist’s ideas.

David Blight, the author of a forthcoming biography of Douglass, decided to use the recent Douglass craze to make a statement about Trump’s executive order on immigration.  Here is a taste of his piece at The Atlantic:

Frederick Douglass, author, orator, editor, and most important African American leader of the 19th century, was a dangerous illegal immigrant. Well, in 1838 he escaped a thoroughly legal system of enslavement to the tenuous condition of fugitive resident of a northern state that had outlawed slavery, but could only protect his “freedom” outside of the law.  

Douglass’s life and work serve as a striking symbol of one of the first major refugee crises in our history. From the 1830s through the 1850s, the many thousands of runaway slaves, like Douglass, who escaped into the North, into Canada, or Mexico put enormous pressure on those places’ political systems. The presence and contested status of fugitive slaves polarized voters in elections; they were the primary subject of major legislation such as the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 as well as Supreme Court decisions such as Dred Scott v. Sanford in 1857. They were at the heart of a politics of fear in the 1850s that led to disunion. Among the many legacies of Douglass’s life and writings alive today, one of the most potent is his role as an illegal migrant and very public abolitionist orator and journalist posing as a free black citizen in slaveholding America.  

Read the entire piece here.