Erasing History

By Eilene Lyon

“There are those who wrap themselves in flags and blow the tinny trumpet of patriotism as a means of fooling the people.” — George Galloway

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Image source

I recently saw this meme posted on Facebook and felt it brought up issues regarding history that this blog ought to address. Taken at face value, I can’t disagree with the sentiment: history, no matter how inconvenient or ugly, should not be erased. It is for us to learn from.

But I can’t just take this meme at face value. It’s been fed into the social media maw without context or commentary. Who is doing what to erase history? What is the real meaning imbued by its creator?

It came from a (WordPress) site devoted to right-wing conspiracies – all the world’s problems boiled down to George Soros, Barack Obama and everyone on the “Left.” The anonymous blogger claims to have been “shadow banned by Facebook and Twitter.” S/he states that anyone upset about our country’s slavery era is “living in the past.” Yet, somehow this person can’t stop moaning about Hillary Clinton.

Another meme posted a couple days after this one specifically mentions statues, so let’s assume the writer is referring to the taking down of Confederate statues, renaming military bases, and bans on the Confederate flag. Are these actions really an attempt to “erase history”?

637px-StatueLouisXIVToppling
The Toppling of Louis XIV’s Statue in the Place des Victoires on 11, 12, 13 August 1792 (Wikimedia Commons)

Ask yourself this – how much have I ever learned about history from a public statue of a man on a horse? From the name of a military base? There are countless books, movies and documentaries about the Civil War (and every other war). Museums, archives, national parks and historic sites, etc. That is where you’ll find history. You can also find history reflected in holdover racist attitudes, hate, labeling, and fear-mongering (not just by whites, either). Talk about living in the past!

Changing the names of public buildings and removing statues is about not honoring people who have done terrible things. It’s not about trying to obliterate all memory of them. We do need to remember the horrible things humans have done to one another.

So why just Confederates? Shouldn’t we remove George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, too? As others have noted, we honor these men in spite of their slave-holding, not because of it. Even so, depending on context, even these may need to be reconsidered and moved.

Lest anyone think that only liberals like to do away with monuments, ask the National Park Service how many times they’ve tried replacing a memorial to Emmett Till because it’s continually being destroyed by those “offended” by it. Or the many Martin Luther King, Jr. statues that have been vandalized around the world.

How about the Confederate flag? There can certainly be a case made for the First Amendment freedom of speech – at least as far as an individual wanting to display it. It definitely doesn’t belong on public buildings or state flags. And private enterprises (e.g. NASCAR), and publicly-funded institutions, have every right to show respect for people of all color by banning it at events.

If you want to put the flag on your truck, your house, go right ahead. To me it just advertises that you’re some kind of loser. Go on telling yourself that it’s all about “Southern pride” and delude yourself that the Civil War wasn’t about slavery, just “states’ rights.” That is true denial and a repudiation of history, not an understanding of it.

640px-Falling_of_Lenin_in_Khmelnytskyi_park
Falling of Lenin in Khmelnytskyi park (Wikimedia Commons)

Let’s suppose that making these changes really is about erasing history. Just whose history is it, anyway?

If you want a discussion about erasing history, let’s take a hard look at whose history has been preserved and whose has not. I’ve written before about Wikipedia’s overwhelmingly white, male, Euro- and American-focused content.

Sure, you may have learned about Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, Martin Luther King, Jr. and maybe Sojourner Truth in school. Perhaps a bit about Tecumseh, Squanto, Pocahontas, and Crazy Horse. Santa Ana and César Chávez. Abigail Adams, Jane Addams, Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. These are merely tokens in a pale, myopic American narrative. History by and about women and people of color has been either ignored or destroyed for centuries – nay, even millenia.

Think of all the oral tradition lost forever when white men massacred entire tribes of Native Americans. Have you ever tried researching your enslaved ancestors? What kind of records have been preserved? Certainly nothing about where they came from or their birth names and families. “History” as practiced in America has been about white male conquest and domination.

It’s only been in the last 60 or 70 years that scholars have made real progress filling in the gaps and resurrecting the stories that belong to ALL Americans. Americans of every gender identity, and every color and ethnicity. Of every country of origin. Of every religious and secular background. But it remains far and away overshadowed by those with the privileges of having won the battles, of dominating political power and finance, of oppression, imperialism, and ego.

Place-vendame-bbraquehais
Place Vendâme, a photograph by Bruno Braquehais (1823–1875) showing the toppled statue of Napoleon at the Place Vendôme following the destruction of the Colonne Vendôme on May 16, 1871 by the Paris Commune. (Wikimedia Commons)

Removing symbolic representations of those privileges from some of our public spaces acknowledges that we are much more than that as a nation. Let’s replace them with monuments to higher ideals and a broader spectrum of humanity.

When we start to see parity in the preservation of history, then I might develop a more sympathetic attitude toward those who see the removal of General Lee and Jefferson Davis to a museum as “erasing history.”

Feature image: “American revolutionary soldiers, assisted by free blacks and slaves, pulling down the statue of King George III at Broadway and Bowling Green, in New York on July 9, 1776 (the lead statue was later hauled to Connecticut and melted down to create bullets and guns).” Destruction of the Royal Statue in New York by Balthasar Friedrich Leizelt (Wikimedia Commons)

45 thoughts on “Erasing History

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  1. Excellent post! I agree with you. There’s a huge difference between remembering history including those who were wrongdoers and honoring those wrongdoers.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Brava!! I did wonder how toppling or burning a statue was supposed to change what’s happened in the past. I remember briefly thinking of the efforts of the sculptors. The remaking of history doesn’t require the destruction of history; not if mindsets don’t change and lessons are never learned. Burning books never destroyed what contents were meant to be erased.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Well said. Once a society puts any one person on a pedestal it is a matter of time before that statue will come down. Times change, perceptions of what is right change, but that doesn’t mean that the person on the statue has been erased. Maybe more like revised? And if people have learned something positive by analyzing the past, then all the better.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. This is so damned spot on, Eilene.

    Admittedly, I was late to the party when it comes to removal of statues. I happened to think it was akin to treating an open wound with a band aid and served no real purpose. But I like to think that with time I’ve come to understand WHY these things matter, because they do matter. And statues are symbolic of WHO we are and what we value.

    This is a great piece of writing, with a valuable lesson.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Thank you for this. I have started to write about this topic a few times and find myself drifting into dangerous territory given that so many of my neighbors here refuse to listen to this perspective. I appreciate your words and your wisdom.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. God, I wish there was a love button for this post, “like” is just not good enough. Preach it, Eilene!
    Seriously, this was so well-written. You covered all the bases and your research, as usual, is impeccable.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh, Christi you are so kind. I know it could use some improvement, but I do appreciate your words. I just hope our country will find a gentle, peaceful way to work through these issues. But it can’t be without voices from all quarters.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. This is a thoroughly enjoyable and well argued post. Love the illustrations! Best rebuttal of “oh but our history” is the defacing of memorials to civil rights icons and the victims of racism. Bravo.

    Liked by 2 people

  8. Very well said Eilene! You make so many important points about the preservation of history and what the history we’ve mostly chosen to preserve says about us as a society. I didn’t know that about the Emmett Till memorial, and given all the horrible people that have been revealed by recent events, I can’t say I’m surprised. but how awful!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. History is really subjective. So much gets lost forever. It isn’t really improving, either. Archives struggle to get enough funding, for example. And people seem to have short attention spans these days. Who has time to pay attention to the past?

      Liked by 1 person

  9. My generation thought the words of Martin Luther King, Jr. were very wise. The violence and vandalism today seems more like a child’s temper tantrum.

    “There is some good in the worst of us, and some evil in the best of us.”
    “If we do an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, we will be a blind and toothless nation.”
    “Forgiveness does not mean ignoring what has been done or putting a false label on an evil act. It means, rather, that the evil act no longer remains as a barrier to the relationship. Forgiveness is a catalyst creating the atmosphere necessary for a fresh start and a new beginning.” – Martin Luther King, Jr. –

    Liked by 2 people

      1. It seems to me that black leadership today is happening at the grass roots level. If Mass and Social Media looked beyond the events that grab the headlines, they would find the lives of the many black people who are making life better in their communities and their country.

        Mass and Social Media – that is our de-facto leader now. Opinion, shaming and the Cancel Culture reign.

        Liked by 2 people

      2. I think you’re right about grass roots leadership. I was thinking the other day that it seems as though the only chance for lasting positive change will have to be grass roots.

        Liked by 1 person

      3. Ugh. So true. I have to give a shoutout to High Country News for their broader perspective. They do a lot to tell the stories of what’s really happening in Native American communities, for example. But most media are just out to make a buck with sensationalist crap. And social media? Don’t get me started!

        Like

  10. Eilene and Liz (new thread because there is no reply button for your previous responses). I’ve enjoyed exchanging observations with you both. I believe that it is important to keep communications open, honest and polite, no matter what a person’s beliefs are.

    Politically, I’m a Canadian Conservative with a keen interest in what happens in America because I own property and live in Arizona in the winter. I believe there should be a regular change in Government with it alternating between the left and the right because it is the only way things don’t go radically one way or the other. Balance.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. You are an amazing writer, Eilene. BTW I lived with Lenin statues on every corner, including schools. They made us love grandpa Lenin. Now he is evil and all about him is brought down. Thus, history repeats itself and we must learn from it if we want to see any progress in humanity.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. As the descendent of Confederate and Union soldiers and a Tennessee resident, I am so tired of the nonsense of the lost cause. I don’t support statuses in public places of people who lead a treasonous uprising; they are ok on the preserved battle fields where they are part of history.

    In Tennessee we are still trying to get a bust of Nathan Bedford Forrest OUT of our state capital. What a joke wrapped in a cloak of “history” and “heritage”. Do the elected officials really NOT understand why the bust is offensive?

    Liked by 1 person

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