In August 2017, the American Historical Association (AHA) released a statement concerning the recent protests in Charlottesville, VA over the debate of Confederate monuments in American communities. The AHA stated that decisions surrounding the removal and relocation of Confederate monuments “require not only attention to historical facts…but also an understanding of what [their] history is and why it matters to public culture.”
The concern of ‘erasing history’ pervades the national dialogue over these monuments. However, removing statues cannot erase history. The removal of Confederate statues is a symbolic action that attests to what history we find acceptable or unacceptable. Dismantling Confederate monuments shows that we do not tolerate white supremacist culture or its place in our government.
The notion that taking Confederate statues down erases history neglects to acknowledge the reason why Confederate monuments were erected in the first place. According to the AHA, most monuments were produced during the era of Jim Crow. They were created by whites as a means to further alienate and disenfranchise African-Americans. This historical context reveals how the statues were created to further racism in the Jim Crow era, and as a result, the monuments continue as symbols to celebrate white supremacy today.
Therefore, the argument for the removal of such monuments is not about the monuments themselves, but is emblematic of a deeper issue in our society. According to Dr. Jasmine Harris, assistant professor of sociology at Ursinus, the statues are a “superficial way to talk about white supremacist culture without actually saying white supremacist culture.”
She explained that solely taking down these monuments “assumes that the only lasting vestiges of white supremacy in this country are in the form of these Confederate statues. And also, that those Confederate statues are solely a southern cultural reflection of ideas past. For one, we know that there are all kinds of these statues all over the country.”
Expounding on the purposes of monuments, Dr. Susanna Throop, associate professor of history at Ursinus, claimed that the statues are meant to “affirm, to praise, to remember” an aspect of U.S. history.
But the period of that history is important, as Throop adds, “We know [Confederate monuments] weren’t created during the Civil War and they weren’t created during the immediate aftermath of the Civil War. They were mostly created in the 20th century. They serve as primary sources for that period of history. They have things to tell us about why they were created, the time in which they were created, and both the reasons for their creation, but also the way they have been interpreted since.”
The way people interpret history, specifically for prejudicial means, is a prevalent concern, as Throop notes, “As a historian, I’m concerned by the way in which white supremacist groups are using history or attempting to use history to support their goals…I’m aware that, as a medievalist, that the history that I study in particular is often taken up as a rallying point for whiteness.”
Like the myth of medieval Europe as the pinnacle of whiteness, Confederate monuments reveal a distortion of historical context and nuance, particularly when that history is being distorted for racist ends. But it is not that these statues are surprising or especially rare in their racism.
As Harris reflects, “I am used to passing by spaces, existing in spaces, entering and exiting spaces all the time with the knowledge that the people who created the space probably didn’t do so with the idea that I would be here.”
Harris continued, “I think it actually matters more for white communities in the United States to see those [statues] taken down because it does say that ‘that culture is not acceptable.’”
White people should take ownership of white supremacy and acknowledge how it permeates the way people learn about history instead of brushing it aside as something ‘other white people do.’
That is why I agree with Dr. Harris that, “it is very important for whites to see Confederate monuments taken down. We aren’t hiding that history, but acknowledging parts of history that should be analyzed, criticized and deemed obsolete. How can we create an atmosphere of critical thought and discussion? Relocating Confederate statues and placing them inside museums will provide citizens with broader understandings of history and the ways racism persists in our country.”
A citizen entering a courthouse, when seeing a monument of Robert E. Lee on the front lawn, is not inundated with historical knowledge from the statue alone. Statues, especially in public settings, are meant to applaud the individual being depicted, not inform its viewers of the atrocities and treasons the historical figure committed. Therefore, the citizen receives a message about what their community values and what their community tolerates by that statue—and what Confederate monuments tolerate is white supremacist sympathy and the alienation of African Americans. Confederate monuments in public spaces create a narrative of intolerance guised in the myth of the white tragic hero.
Furthermore, statues alone cannot build an informed public consciousness. As the AHA states, a statue “is not history itself.” Confederate monuments cannot educate citizens without necessary context. A Confederate statue outside a court room is an entirely different experience than a Confederate statue inside a museum.
Dismantling Confederate statues from our community spaces shows that racist rhetoric is unacceptable. Taking down racist statues is a white obligation. The absence of those statues—their demotion from places of government and other public spaces—is a clear disavowal of the Confederacy and its sympathizers, and therefore, necessary in order to ostracize and minimize white supremacist culture.