Confederate monuments across the United States have become a flashpoint over the last year, and tragically boiled over with the Neo-Nazi protest in Charlottesville, Virginia that led to the death of a counter-protestor, Heather Heyer on August 12th, 2017. While many Civil War and Confederate monuments are products of a different era, you might be surprised to learn that the memory being enshrined in them largely postdates the Reconstruction Era (1865 – 1877), by quite a bit. The chart below, put together by the Southern Poverty Law Center shows a significant spike in the production of these monuments beginning around 1906, and coincides largely with attempts to suppress black voting and the introduction of Jim Crow laws in the South.
Civil War and Confederate monuments and memorials are still being commissioned and built today – certainly not at the rate they were in the early 1900s, but nonetheless they are still being built. Critics of these monuments and memorials argue that they perpetuate a racist ideology that continues to affect people of color in the United States today. Those in favor of keeping the monuments argue that they are about heritage and history, while others argue that the Civil War wasn’t really about slavery but that it was a war over states’ rights and economic issues and therefore the monuments aren’t racist.
These monuments exist in the northern US as well, and as Kirk Savage argued in his article “The Politics of Memory”, in order for the two sides to reconcile after the devastation of the Civil War, a common language of commemoration had to be adopted which ignored entirely the horrifying history of slavery. The reason for this is that ultimately, the North did not go to war to abolish slavery, but the South seceded to preserve slavery. By eliding or erasing the issue of slavery altogether from the commemorative language, both sides could instill a more noble memory in the permanent landscape of the nation.
A recent report from the Southern Poverty Law Center points to why this debate may have gotten so heated, and why some may be getting history so wrong. In a survey of 1,000 high school seniors, only 8% correctly identified slavery as the reason the South seceded. According to the report, it is not so much that teachers are unaware of slavery or the hard truth of it, but rather that they are uncomfortable talking about the hard truths of slavery, because it makes students (both students of color and white students) uncomfortable, there is little guidance on how to teach such a hard subject, and finally that textbooks and teachers “accentuate the positive”.
I find it difficult to advocate for the removal of these monuments, memorials, and statues, as it is a slippery slope, and gives fuel to those who would censor Andreas Serrano, Robert Mapplethorpe, Chris Ofili, to name just a few of the more famous instances. Rather, I think Anita Moskowitz’s response to a poll by the College Art Association regarding the removal of such monuments puts it best, “Most people, including art historians and museum personnel, are used to seeing works of art out of context … It is the job of art historians and museum curators to contextualize and analyze the original function and meaning of the monuments and symbols both for scholars and the public at large”. This in turn affirms the need for the humanities at large, and art history in particular, despite the continued assault against them as disciplines at universities across the United States.