As a scholar of commemoration and race, I’ve spent years researching how America remembers slavery, the Civil War and segregation. In graduate school, I became intrigued with the hidden history of the decades following the war.
As I immersed myself in research on this period, I was repeatedly struck by how little most of us learn about its key events. For instance, I learned that Reconstruction-era Mississippi sent African Americans to the U.S. Senate – a distinction that to this day, only five states have matched. I discovered that slavery was never fully outlawed in the United States, and that well-developed slavery-like systems persisted in some areas into the 20th Century.
Knowledge of this past reshaped my understanding of American history more broadly. While our society’s awareness of this era is scarcer than I’d like, its total disappearance would be an incalculable loss.
So in recent debates over Confederate memorials, I’ve been heartened to hear politicians argue that we shouldn’t “erase history.” I agree.
Unfortunately, memorials’ defenders are drawing exactly the wrong conclusion from their premise.
Simply stated, the problem is this: it is the memorials themselves that erase history. That is, most Confederate statues and monuments aren’t history. They’re fake history, worse than no history at all. Let me explain.
Real historic representation involves an evidence-based, fair accounting of the past so that it can be better understood. This includes not merely discrete events, such as “soldiers from our state fought and died for a cause,” but also their context.
Most Confederate memorials are missing context to such a degree that they reduce viewers’ understanding of the past more than augment it.
Without slavery, economic tensions between the North and South would not have boiled over into war. Yet to my knowledge, not a single memorial mentions that the Confederacy waged war so that some human beings could physically, economically, and sexually exploit, torture and kill other human beings with impunity.
What’s more, the U.S. Constitution is specific: treason consists “only in levying war against” the United States. As soldiers who took up arms for the Confederacy did so against the United States, they were traitors. This fact, too, is absent from our embattled memorials.
To be sure, soldiers for the rebellion were moved in part by ideas of honor, duty and loyalty. But the same could be said of Germans who fought for their fatherland under Nazism, or of modern-day terrorists who kill in the name of religion.
Germany and Iraq revere honor and loyalty as much as we do, but they do not host many memorials that venerate Nazis and suicide bombers.
Because the outcry against “erasing history” ignores that the Confederacy used illegal methods in the service of immoral ends, I’ve come to suspect that the furor is not about preserving historical knowledge. Perhaps it instead reveals a hunger to cast our ancestors in the most positive light possible, regardless of the truth – that is, a hunger for fake history. If so, this is unfortunate.
It is vital that we understand how millions of our predecessors, nearly all of whom saw themselves as honorable Americans, were convinced to kill fellow citizens in defense of an evil system. Our memorials should invite us to reflect on this question.
If they instead erase history in favor of a defensive, insecure refusal to recognize that parts of what our forebears did were horrifically wrong, what hope do we have of moving beyond their mistakes?
So how should we mark this troubled past?
Most monuments to the Lost Cause should be moved from courthouses and parks to museums, where they can be fully contextualized. In some sites, we might replace these icons with figures that honor fighters against slavery and segregation. Some memorials that focus on rebel soldiers’ sacrifices might be kept on wider display, though only if sufficient context is given.
This shift could yield a fuller story of our past, while at the same time signaling a commitment to move beyond past mistakes.
There is one other way our misleading memorials could be useful.
In my hometown of Durham, protesters toppled a Confederate soldier figure. Like many of its brethren, the memorial lacked local connection, said nothing of the war’s context or causes, and was erected decades after the war during a wave of white supremacist violence. Its purpose was to distort the past as a means to control the present and future.
But where this statue failed as both historical representation and moral symbol, its remains might yet succeed.
What better way to commit ourselves to real history than by placing a new marker, telling a fuller story of the war, of the fallen memorial’s role in occluding history, and of the day we rejected it as a distorting symbol of white supremacy, at the statue’s original site - just above its crumbled remains?
Raj Andrew Ghoshal (firstname.lastname@example.org) is an assistant professor of sociology at Elon University in Elon, N.C.