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Statues do not teach history

Statues do not teach history
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The state of Virginia has removed its statue of Robert E. Lee from the U.S. Capitol, where it has stood for more than a century. 

It will soon be replaced by a statue of civil rights activist Barbara Johns. The move seems a fitting end to a year filled with protests against racial injustice, but it has provoked a backlash on social media. The debate over Lee’s statue reveals the need to consider how American history is being commemorated and taught and what, if any role, iconography should play in the process.

Gov. Ralph Northam (D-Va.) celebrated the decision to replace the statue of the general with a more fitting representative of his state. “The Confederacy is a symbol of Virginia’s racist and divisive history,” he declared, “and it is past time we tell our story with images of perseverance, diversity, and inclusion.” As expected, the removal sparked a storm of protest on social media from those who insisted liberals were trying to erase American history in the interest of political correctness. Conservative commentator Pat Buchanan has described the removal of Confederate monuments as a “cultural Marxist Revolution.”

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Statues, however, don’t teach history. They commemorate individuals and celebrate a romanticized vision of the past. They provide neither context nor an explanation of events. They elevate representatives of some groups while ignoring others. For these reasons their place in the public sphere is highly problematic. 

The statue of Lee provides a poignant example of these issues. Placed in the capitol 1909, it is a monument not to the Civil War but to the era of Jim Crow, the legalized regime of apartheid enacted to reassert the racial hierarchy throughout the old Confederacy, which lasted until the mid-1960’s. Most monuments to confederate heroes were erected between 1890 and 1929 as celebration of the “glorious lost cause,” a reinvention of American history that glorified antebellum culture, downplayed the evils of slavery and defended secession as a legitimate defense of states’ rights. 

It is no coincidence that the era of Confederate monument building corresponds almost exactly to the heyday of lynching. Of the more than 4,000 African Americans lynched, the vast majority were murdered between 1880 and 1920. Celebration of the Confederacy, Jim Crow, and extrajudicial violence served the same purpose: the reassertion of white power. Small wonder that virtually all African Americans and an increasing number of Euro-Americans find the statues offensive.

Removing Confederate statues is not an iconoclastic attack on American heritage, but the first step in a more truthful telling of American history. That process requires more than removing offensive images from public spaces. It necessitates including events and individuals left out of conventional narratives about the American past. For example, the 1921 Tulsa race massacre in which white vigilantes destroyed a prosperous Black neighborhood and killed approximately 300 African Americans has been omitted from most history courses and textbooks.

Published on the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first slaves in Jamestown, Va., the 1619 Project contains additional material that belongs in the history curriculum of every high school. This collection of essays demonstrates how slavery shaped American institutions and created a legacy of racism that endures to the present. Many educators argue for adding it to the curriculum. That effort has drawn strong criticism from those who prefer a celebratory version of American history. In July 2020, Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) proposed the Saving American History Act, which would prohibit “the use of federal funds by an elementary or secondary school to teach the 1619 Project.” So far, the bill has not attracted a co-sponsor.

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States have also promoted a preferred version of American history. In 2010, the Texas Board of Education dominated by conservatives changed “slave trade” to “Atlantic triangular trade” in the state’s social studies guidelines. Critics consider the decision a partisan effort to avoid the ugly realities of human bondage. In 2015, the Oklahoma House Common Education Committee supported a bill “prohibiting the expenditure of funds on the Advanced Placement United States History course.” They objected to the national AP curriculum because it did not teach manifest destiny (the right of Euro-Americans to spread Christianity and “civilization” through westward expansion) and presented what they considered an overly negative view of American history.

History should be taught neither as a celebratory view of the American past nor an endless list of egregious misdeeds. It should present students with a balanced account. Thomas Jefferson is to be acknowledged for his many contributions to the founding of the republic, but students must also learn that the wealth that enabled him to make those contributions came from the labor of enslaved human beings. The history of westward expansion has to include discussion of Native American Displacement. Discussion of the U.S. contribution to defeating fascism in World War II should also cover the evil of Japanese-American internment. Above all, students should be taught the critical thinking skills necessary for interpreting the past. 

Statues can play no constructive role in teaching history, except perhaps as illustrations of how our ancestors romanticized the past. For that purpose, Virginia is moving Lee’s statue to a museum, where it can be viewed along with interpretive background material. Anyone upset by the statue’s relocation would do well to read what Lee himself said about commemoration. Asked about the desirability of constructing a memorial at Gettysburg, he observed, “I think it wiser . . . not to keep open the sores of war but to follow the examples of those nations who endeavored to obliterate the marks of civil strife, to commit to oblivion the feelings engendered [by that strife].” Lee would certainly have supported removing his statue from the capitol.

Tom Mockaitis is Professor of History and DePaul University and author of "Violent Extremism: Understanding the Domestic and International Extremist Threat."