On Monuments to the Confederacy

Many are not familiar with the term “public history,” but I assure you, it is everywhere. If you are not a trained historian, it is likely that the only interactions you have ever had with history have been ‘public history,’ history that is consumed via books, museums, historic sites, classrooms, and yes, memorials. 

As a working public historian, my interest has been peaked immensely by the talk of tearing down monuments and memorials to the Confederacy. Memorials are central to the study of public history. I’m personally obsessed with them, but not because they’re important (they’re not) and not because they’re historically informative or useful (they’re definitely not). Memorials and monuments have become my personal and professional obsession because they often are such transparent embodiments of the time, place and people that brought them into the world. That’s why monuments so often are passed by and ignored. A marble statue of a man on a horse isn't going to engage the interest of modern folks like us, when we could be looking at abstract art or social media or Game of Thrones. We want movement, evolution, conceptual challenges. We want brightly colored flashing lights and fire-breathing dragons. When we put up monuments today, we call upon experimental artists to create something new and different, because who wants to look at another statue of another dead White guy?

Here’s an exercise: go look outside. Whether you live in a small town or large city, you will find plaques commemorating historical events, statues honoring famous men (good luck finding a woman), local history museums, and I’ll bet they’ve become such a part of your landscape that you never noticed them before. Memorials don’t exist because you asked to remember that part of history; they exist because someone in the past decided that their descendants should be forced to remember what they felt was important in their own time. Memorials are tricky that way: you never know what kind of legacy is going to endure. We put them up as placeholders and hope that a hundred years down the line they will still be relevant. 

Sometimes, they’re not.

I have a message for the people advocating for the monuments honoring the Confederate States of America: if the only thing celebrating your history is a statue, your history is no longer worth celebrating. If the historians, politicians, folklorists, educators, and citizens of your nation have collectively condemned your history to the point of removing its monuments, then you are the problem.

Monuments, as I indicated earlier, are neither useful nor valuable teachers of history. They are too simplistic to be educational, too wrought with symbolism to be truthful. They do not carry any inherent lessons of history, unless accompanied by a comprehensive historical account on its plaque that acknowledges multiple viewpoints and the author’s own biases (let me give you hint — that never happens). You cannot “know” history by looking at a monument: it only carries relevance to you if you know its context, if you have heard that history before. All the monument does is reinforce the importance of that history to the people who have allowed it to endure. If you’re looking at the visage of a Confederate general in a public space, all it tells you is that the people who have been charged with maintaining that space still celebrate the Confederacy. It teaches you nothing about Lee as a person, his military victories, his viewpoints. It just says, “Hey, when you hear this name, remember that he’s important. Remember to celebrate him.”

In studying commemorative spaces, it has become clear that when memorials and monuments no longer hold value to the people, those monuments come toppling down. On July 9, 1776, upon hearing a public reading of the Declaration of Independence, a group of soldiers in New York City promptly tore down the statue of King George III and melted it down to be used as bullets. Not only did they bring down the symbol of their oppression, they used it as a weapon to fight against their oppressor. Frankly, the American Revolutionaries were the absolute best at utilizing metaphor in their daily actions. 

We all know the adage, “history is written by the victorious,” and it’s true, but not always in the way you’d think. It’s not always the new king who forces the hand of his scribes — in a democratic society, we, the people, get to decide what history is relevant in our public spaces. When people come together to decide which memorials and monuments are worth keeping and which need to come down, that is the most democratic method of determining history’s victors. If a small voice protests, and loud voice rumbles back and echoes across the nation, the small voice proves its irrelevance. I hate to break it to you, alt-righters, but the Confederate States of America fought for secession and lost — you don’t get to keep the monuments to your failed state in the nation that welcomed you back in after your rebellion. I’ll happily let Lenin, Stalin, Hitler, and Saddam Hussein remind you of that. America has been fighting against racism for several hundred years now, and with the tearing down of Confederate monuments, it’s clear that racism is losing. These are small battles, but with every statue to Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis that falls, the war shows signs of winning. 

“My Footsteps Through History”: Unique and Powerful Student-Led Tours Through Butte

As you may know, in addition to singing and songwriter-ing, I work as the Manager of the Clark Chateau in Uptown Butte, Montana, and I'm currently running a summer internship program there for nine local teens, ages 15 to 18. We're three weeks in, and it's been an amazing experience so far. It's a very diverse group of personalities and talents, and it's been a fun challenge putting on the facade of being an adult. Every week the group meets for a day chock-full of workshops, where we discuss how history and society can be examined through the fine arts (and more): so far, we've done theatre and playwriting, mythology and folklore, film and screenwriting, and next week they'll be looking at dance and photography. 

What is wonderful for me is seeing that, before being selected for our program at the Chateau, our interns have already been making waves in this town. They've been approaching history through alternative lenses for a while, and as an educator, this is incredibly exciting to see.

MacKenzie Coe and Tori Turner are both rising sophomores at Butte High, and for their final History class projects this year, they created their own films, with the theme “My Footsteps Through History.” Their videos are personal, heart-felt, thorough, and (I write proudly and excitedly) historically accurate. They demonstrate exactly what makes history so powerful and so important: its ability to reach out across generations and tap into a young person’s mind and soul, making them think and feel and learn. This assignment wasn’t a chronological approach to Butte’s history; rather, it encourages a thematic approach, nearly unheard of in our country’s public school system.

The History teacher behind this assignment, Chris Fisk, is a genuine treasure in our town: his methods are innovative and challenging, he treats his students with respect and often admiration, and his belief about history is that it is a constant presence in our lives, not a distant past (a “foreign country” as David Lowenthal would call it). He directs the Butte High History Club, which is basically an institution here, and leads his students on trips that encourage personal connections with Butte’s often under-explored history. He doesn’t limit the discussion to Copper Kings and headframes; he brings his students to the Butte’s unglamorous Cabbage Patch neighborhood, its brothels, its warehouse district, its graveyards. These students develop an appreciation for those people whose stories are too often swept under the ornate rugs of our city’s extravagant mansions (the Chateau included).

This past week, Fisk presented his students’ work at the Butte-Silver Bow Public Archives for their bi-weekly Brown Bag Lunch series. He said emphatically, “This presentation is not about me. This is about them,” pointing at the group of teenagers huddled nervously in the back of the room. He’s right. Teaching should not be about the teacher, but about the students, and Fisk understands that more than most teachers I have encountered. Likewise, history should not be about the past, but about the present it has impacted.

The Chateau is truly lucky to have a group of interns who have been taught history by the likes of Chris Fisk. Tori’s and MacKenzie’s videos are glimpses at the kind of work that can come out of a mutual respect built between student and teacher, past and present, history and historian. Enjoy:

Tori Turner's Footsteps Through History

MacKenzie Coe's Footsteps Through History

Being Boring: A Public Historian’s Dilemma

“Be more boring, Callison!”

This may be my favorite piece of criticism that I have ever received from a professor. My writing style, he said, was engaging, entertaining and fluid, with a journalistic flair that he greatly enjoyed. But at my university, the History department requires a more academic tone in postgraduate work. This is completely understandable; after all, I’m playing with the big kids now. But why are “academic” and “entertaining” mutually exclusive?

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