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
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”?
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.
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.
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)