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.