We Have a Right to Question Historical Iconography

I want to give praise to blogging extraordinaire Al Mackey at Student of the Civil War for a nice essay he recently wrote in response to an absolutely dreadful op-ed in the Boston Globe about Confederate history, memory and iconography. The op-ed writer, Alex Beam, synthesizes the worst arguments in support of maintaining Confederate iconography in public and basically suggests that while historical revisionism is important, any effort to question the role of this iconography is akin to “simplifying history” and running away from who we are as a people. Beam never clarifies what sort of “historical revisionism” is appropriate in his mind, and he subtly assumes that the initial creation of these now-contested monuments, memorials, and statues wasn’t somehow a product of “simplifying history” at the time of their dedication. Only those today who would like to engage in a serious conversation about these expressions of public memory are guilty of simplifying the past.

There are many signs of fallacious thinking in Beam’s screed. A poor historical comparison (comparing “willy-nilly de-Confederatization” with de-Stalinization in the USSR or the destruction of ancient Middle Eastern history by ISIS and the Taliban), a misinterpretation of the motives behind these discussions (“simplifying history to accommodate a set agenda – North good, South bad,” according to Beam. Who the hell is actually making that argument? Name one serious historian whose scholarship can be simply whittled down to “North good, South bad.”), and a slippery slope argument (if we get rid of all these Confederate monuments then we may as well get rid of Jefferson, Jackson, and Lincoln monuments! They were flawed people too!).

Al sees through this harried thinking, however, and gets to the heart of the matter:

Beam misses the entire point. The point is not to simplify history, to ignore history, or even to erase parts of history. The point is to decide whether certain people deserve to be honored. Does Roger B. Taney deserve a statue in his honor? Does Andrew Jackson deserve a dinner in his honor? Ditto for Thomas Jefferson? The debate should contain a full discussion of the history of these men, including the fact that Taney freed the slaves he had owned, but ultimately it comes down to whether or not these men deserve the honors they are being given. Introducing phony comparisons and long discredited interpretations isn’t helpful.

The title of Beam’s op-ed is “Confederate flag flap isn’t an invitiation to rewrite history.” In reality there is always an open invitation to rewrite history, because history is the process by which we structure, interpret, and communicate what actually happened in the past. Creating history also means crossing an intersection with memory and how people choose to remember the past, which is subject to its own faults and misrembering. “The past” is what actually happened and “history” is how we go about explaining what happened in the past. How we explain the past will always be subject to revision in both text and public iconography as circumstances change in our world today and historical evidence acquires new meaning. As Kenneth Foote argues in Shadowed Ground: America’s Landscapes of Violence and Tragedy, the meanings we ascribe to historical places are always changing, and sometimes those changes necessitate alterations of the natural and man-made creations that dot a historical landscape. That also means, as Al argues, that we are in a position to sometimes question whether or not the people we choose to publicly commemorate are actually worthy of that recognition.

I believe that we shouldn’t take down any Confederate iconography simply for the sake of change, but it’s equally valid to say that we shouldn’t leave up all Confederate iconography simply for the sake of tradition. We have a right in 2015 to question the wisdom of maintaining a monument erected in 1915 just as much as the people of 2115 will have the right to question our ways of remembering the past in 2015. Countries like Germany, Italy, Hungary, France, Russia, South Africa, and Japan are not bound to publicly commemorate their difficult pasts in the same way their forefathers did, and neither are we in the United States.

As has been argued repeatedly by Kevin Levin at Civil War Memory, local communities throughout the country need to think seriously about the values they cherish and how they want to represent their history in a public setting. Some things may necessarily stay the same, some things may need to be contextualized, and some things may need to be removed. That’s the nature of historical revisionism. Let’s keep an open mind and have an honest conversation about public iconography rather than whining about having that conversation in the first place and equating any sort of change to the historical landscape to the work of ISIS.

Cheers

What is the Future of Historical Reenacting in Public History?

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

A few weeks ago The Bitter Southerner published a nice essay on Civil War reenacting. The author asserts that reenacting is in a period of transition as some enthusiasts push for a more holistic understanding of Civil War history, one that strives for “deeper, truer purposes” by explaining why this war was fought in the first place. Moreover, the author argues that “Civil War reenactments are as popular now as they have ever been,” so therefore historical reenactors–and the entire public history field–can and should find ways to use reenacting to disseminate a better understanding of the Civil War to the public.

I don’t buy the argument that Civil War reenacting–or any sort of reenacting save for maybe World War II–is as popular as ever. While it’s my understanding that the Civil War Sesquicentennial did bring out a large number of reenactors to commemorate the 150th anniversary of various battles like Shiloh and Gettysburg and General Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Court House, what’s notable about the Sesquicentennial is how many reenactors who grew up during the Centennial years of the 1960s chose to wear their outfits for the last time with the end of the 150th this year. I highly doubt that the so-called “millennial” generation is going to maintain the popularity of Civil War or any historical reenacting in the future. Another article in the Peoria Journal Star seems to confirm my skepticism.

The Journal Star article focuses on Fort Crevecoeur in Illinois, which was first established in the late seventeenth century. The fort doesn’t have the popularity of a Civil War site, but during the 1980s the fort held reenactments based on events when the fort functioned as a trading post that drew crowds of more than 3,000 visitors. Today the number of reenactors still participating in events at the fort dwindles around 15 or 20. The site has expanded its offerings and now hosts a French and Indian War reenactment, but concerns remain about the future of these events and even the site itself.

Three reasons are offered in the Journal Star for explaining why historical reenactments aren’t popular with younger people today:

  1. Kids are more interested in technology “and air conditioning” than spending the day outside at a reenactment.
  2. Kids don’t have the money to invest in reenacting.
  3. Older reenactors don’t want to be around young people and look upon them “with disdain.”

I think explanation two–that kids [i.e. their parents] don’t have the money–is the most plausible. Time is an important factor as well, however. Organized sports, to take one example, play a much larger role in many children’s lives than they did in the 1960s or 70s. Kids also have more homework than ever before. And while older folks can definitely be grumpy sometimes, I think those sentiments are reflective of a basic fact of human nature: young people like hanging out with other young people during their free time. Ditto to older people. And both groups can unfortunately look at each other with too much skepticism.

The bit about kids being more interested in technology than being outside is a red herring that distracts us from questioning why this site’s current programming is not attracting visitors. Sure, kids are inside more often and some teens are spending as much as seven and a half hours a day consuming media, but who’s to blame for that? The kids are being raised by parents who attended those reeanctments as children in the 1980s and are choosing not to return. Adults are spending more time inside consuming media on computers, phones, and televisions too. Kids who spend all day online are doing so because their parents allow them to, and because parents often indulge in the same types of behavior.

Is the future of public history doomed because of digital technology, or is there an opportunity for public historians to thoughtfully incorporate at least some semblance of digital technology to enhance their programming? If you agree with me that the latter course is a better one, then you’ll see that throwing our hands up and doing nothing but moaning about kids and their phones will most certainly hasten this field’s demise. Let’s stop making excuses. Michael Twitty, a historical reenactor who often portrays himself as an enslaved cook at events and is quoted in the aforementioned Bitter Southerner piece, is right when he says that “my job is to bring to life what the life of an enslaved person looked like so that you can take a picture of it with your iPhone and share this knowledge.”

Historical reenacting is suffering in part, I think, because the way we teach history to students in the classroom is changing, both in content and method. What I call the “dates, dead people, and dust” approach to history education is slowly going away and being replaced with teaching methods that embrace nuance and context and incorporate primary sources alongside select readings from academic historians. Memorizing a bunch of facts for a forty-question multiple choice test is not an effective way of teaching history, and it seems like more teachers are beginning to challenge their students to interpret the past using primary and secondary evidence and to then make compelling arguments in written and oral form. Moreover, the discussion topics in history classrooms, for better or worse, are moving away from heroic narratives of great white men, dramatic battles, and military tactics towards questions of politics, economics, social practices, group identities, and history as a process of connected events with implications for the present instead of a series of unconnected events on a timeline from a bygone, irrelevant era.

Given these changes in the classroom, we should be unsurprised when historical reenactments that privilege dry lectures, minute facts about obscure historical artifacts, and narratives that literally whitewash the past don’t attract the attention of young or diverse audiences.

Do I think historical reenacting is ineffective or a waste of time? Absolutely not! I’ve done historical reenacting myself (poorly). When I lived in Indiana I participated in Connor Prarie’s “Follow the North Star” program and was profoundly moved by the entire experience. But the reenacting alone wasn’t what impressed me. The program gave me a chance to actively participate in the event itself and contribute my own voice through a post-event facilitated dialogue run by a professional. The dialogue challenged all participants to reflect on their own experiences during the event and then comment on the role of history in shaping our society today. Plus they gave us resources to learn more about slavery, the underground railroad, and Indiana history at the very end. It was reenacting with emotion, passion, intelligence, active participation, and respect for the past. We need more of that in public history if we want reenacting to play an important educational role in the future.

Cheers

A Reading List on the Civil War in Missouri

Next month I’ll be taking a MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) through Missouri State University on the Civil War in Missouri. History professor Jeremy Neely will be teaching the course, which you can sign up for here. I am really excited to learn something new about a topic that I’m very passionate about.

There is no syllabus or required reading for the class, but in preparation for it I wanted to put together my own list of resources that I’ve relied to inform my own understanding of the Civil War experience in Missouri. Please add your favorite reads and recommendations in the comments section.

Adam Arenson, The Great Heart of the Republic: St. Louis and the Cultural Civil War (Harvard University Press, 2011)

Albert Castel, General Sterling Price and the Civil War in the West (Louisiana State University Press, 1968)

Bryce A. Suderow and R. Scott House, The Battle of Pilot Knob: Thunder in Arcadia Valley (Southeast Missouri State University Press, 2014)

Daniel O’Flaherty, General Jo Shelby: Undefeated Rebel (University of North Carolina Press, 1954)

Dennis K. Boman, Lincoln and Citizens’ Rights in Civil War Missouri: Balancing Freedom and Security (Louisiana State University Press, 2011)

Diane Mutti Burke and Jonathan Earle, eds., Bleeding Kansas, Bleeding Missouri: The Long Civil War on the Border (University Press of Kansas, 2013)

Diane Mutti Burke, On Slavery’s Border: Missouri’s Small Slaveholding Households, 1815-1865 (University of Georgia Press, 2010)

Jay Monaghan, Civil War on the Western Border, 1854-1865 (Little, Brown & Co., 1955)

James Neal Primm, Lion of the Valley: St. Louis, Missouri, 1764-1980 (Missouri Historical Society Press, 1981)

Jeffrey L. Patrick, Campaign for Wilson’s Creek: The Fight for Missouri Begins (McWhitney Foundation Press, 2011)

Louis S. Gerteis, Civil War St. Louis (University of Kansas Press, 2001)

Louis S. Gerteis, The Civil War in Missouri: A Military History (University of Missouri Press, 2012)

Michael Fellman, Inside War: The Guerrilla Conflict in Missouri During the American Civil War (Oxford University Press, 1989)

Nicole Etcheson, Bleeding Kansas: Contested Liberty in the Civil War Era (University of Kansas Press, 2004)

Silvana R. Siddali, Missouri’s War: The Civil War in Documents (Ohio University Press, 2009)

William Garrett Piston and Richard W. Hatcher III, Wilson’s Creek: The Second Battle of the Civil War and the Men Who Fought It (University of North Carolina Press, 2000)

William E. Parrish, Frank Blair: Lincoln’s Conservative (University of Missouri Press, 1998)

A Brief Note on September 11 and the Concept of “Never Forget”

9-11 Never Forget Pentagon

Many people have made an effort to remind each other on this September 11th that we as a country–and indeed the entire world–will “Never Forget” the horrors of that awful day in 2001. I appreciate these gestures, but it’s important to remember that students in grades K-12 today are young enough that they have nothing to actually remember. Your lived experiences and memories of 9/11 are a younger generation’s history; a history that they will learn through school textbooks, YouTube videos, and your memories.

How we choose to tell this history to ourselves and our posterity will be discussed, debated, and reinterpreted for many years to come, but it will have to involve more than personal reflections on “where I was when I heard about 9/11” or hashtag remembrances on social media. It will require more than symbolic flag waving and uncritical praise of our country’s legacy while shouting “‘Murcia!”. Indeed, the flag’s meaning is not derived from its material or design but from the ideals it symbolizes and embodies – ideals that have been contested, abused, and stained by the blood of those who died for its preservation.

This history will need to probe difficult questions about the causes, context, and consequences of 9/11, and it will have to challenge us to think about patriotism, the military, popular government, and a range of other issues that push us to ultimately consider what it means to be an American today.

We will need to have these discussions because they will play a crucial role in shaping how we want this country to look like going forward and, hopefully, help us leave our society in a better condition for our posterity. These discussions will hurt, and we will need to reckon with the pain they provoke. I am not completely sure whether we’ll be up for this important task. But I will hope for a better future because this country–like my own family–is something that I was born into, for better or worse. And just like my family, my country and I will have our disagreements and uncertainties at times. The U.S.A. is something I love, however, and something that will endure if we as a society give it the care it deserves.

On Becoming a Primary Source And Acquiring Historical Truths

“I love the Victorian Era. So I decided to live in it.” Photo Credit: BBC http://www.bbc.co.uk/schools/primaryhistory/victorian_britain/children_in_coal_mines/

Yesterday Vox published an essay from scholar Sarah A. Chrisman about her and her husband’s ongoing effort to live their everyday lives in the Victorian era of the 1880s and 1890s. Literally. They live in a house built in 1888, exclusively use historical technologies like iceboxes and mechanical clocks (although I guess the internet is fair game?), wear Victorian-style clothing in and out of the house, and bathe with a bowl and pitcher every morning. They are going full-out with this experiment.

While these two clearly love Victorian culture and use it as a way of bonding with each other, I think this project is wacky. I saw the original article through a tweet from Slate writer Rebecca Onion. Several people commented on that tweet that the project was not historically accurate and that it was “pure caucasity,” an experiment undertaken by a well-to-do white couple who consciously chose to live their lives as wealthy Victorian elites and not, say, poor working-class immigrants who might die at age 40 of dysentery or consumption. I jokingly remarked on Facebook that it was the apotheosis of hipster divinity, by which I meant that the hipster ideal of bringing back historical aesthetics, fashion sensibilities, and technologies into the counterculture of modern society was taken to a new level by Chrisman and her husband. There is also an irony in forgoing modern technologies and lamenting the excesses of free market capitalism today while celebrating a period in which capitalism was arguably its harshest and most unregulated, all while using Victorian technologies that would have been cutting edge at the time.

Onion was quick to write a must-read, brilliant critique of this Victorian living experiment. I don’t propose to completely repeat that critique here, but I want to focus on what I believe is Chrisman’s very naive understanding of the relationship between the past (what actually happened), history (what we say about what happened in the past and the narratives we form to tell those stories), and the role of interpretation in shaping our understanding of the past.

Chrisman suggests that secondary sources (documents created about a historical event after the fact) can lead to misunderstanding and confusion about the past. That’s certainly true, but she goes even further by relying exclusively on primary source materials written during the Victorian Era to determine the accuracy of her living experiment. She states this argument in the following paragraph:

The artifacts in our home represent what historians call “primary source materials,” items directly from the period of study.  Anything can be a primary source, although the term usually refers to texts. The books and magazines the Victorians themselves wrote and read constitute the vast bulk of our reading materials — and since reading is our favorite pastime, they fill a large percentage of our days. There is a universe of difference between a book or magazine article about the Victorian era and one actually written in the period. Modern commentaries on the past can get appallingly like the game “telephone”: One person misinterprets something, the next exaggerates it, a third twists it to serve an agenda, and so on. Going back to the original sources is the only way to learn the truth.

There are a few problems here. One is that no matter how many historical artifacts a person possesses from any given time period, that person is not living her life within the social, political, and economic conditions of that period. Victorian women, for example, did not have the right to vote and were often relegated to a life of domestic home making (believed at the time to be their “natural” sphere in life). Many also had limited opportunities to obtain a quality education. These are challenges that Chrisman does not have to deal with today. An idealized and imagined past of iceboxes and mechanical clocks can only take you so far in accomplishing an accurate, “real” past.

There is also an assumption in this passage that only secondary sources are prone to misinterpretation, exaggeration, and agenda-filled commentaries. On the contrary, primary sources are just as prone to the same issues as secondary sources and can do much to distort “the truth.” Elizabeth Varon’s Appomattox: Victory, Defeat, and Freedom at the End of the Civil War perfectly demonstrates how easy it is for primary sources to lead readers into the wrong direction. Varon points out that in the aftermath of General Lee’s surrender to General Grant there was much confusion among contemporaries about the meaning of the Appomattox surrender terms. Abolitionists and African Americans believed that Grant’s terms vindicated the cause of emancipation and laid the foundations for black citizenship, voting rights, and even racial equality in the postwar years. Conservative Northern Unionists and former Confederates, however, viewed Grant’s generous terms as a call for a more cautious approach to reconstructing the nation that would place prewar Southern political elites back into power and maintain the underpinnings of white supremacy. Added to the challenge of understanding Appomattox are the rampant misinterpretations and exaggerations of some contemporary newspapers and letter writers. Some people sympathetic to the Confederacy stated that U.S. forces outnumbered Confederate forces ten to one at the time of Lee’s surrender. That interpretation in many cases served a larger twisted agenda arguing that Grant’s victory came about solely because he had more troops and superior resources than Lee. Grant’s men and the causes they fought for were supposedly tainted because they had won an unfair fight, a war of “might over right” instead of “right over might.”

But hey, these are all primary sources, right? We just need to look at what people said at the time–no matter how disparate their views were–and get back to the actual surrender terms instead of these tainted secondary sources to uncover their meaning and find the truth, eh?

Historians are trained to research primary and secondary sources, develop interpretations of these sources using the best available evidence and theories, and construct narratives that best reflect the realities of the past. The best historical scholarship pushes us to new understandings of both past and present, but we shouldn’t kid ourselves about the ability to literally time travel into the past either through historical research or “period living.”

The historian Robin Collingwood argued in the 1940s that historians, through hard work and intense research, could “know” Julius Caesar and put themselves in his mind, understanding “the situation in which Caesar stood, and thinking for himself what Caesar thought about the situation and the possible ways of dealing with it.” Implicit in this argument, as Sam Wineburg points out, is the assumption that “human ways of thought, in some deep and essential way, transcend time and space.”

I’m not as confident as Collingwood that we can completely get into the mindset of any historical person or time period. I actually believe the opposite is true: that the combination of limited primary sources and our distance in both time and space prevents us from truly grasping the full truth of the past in most instances. We are just trying to make sense of the past to the best of our abilities and then somehow use that knowledge to inform society as we move rapidly into an unknowable future.

I hope Chrisman and her husband enjoy their Victorian lifestyles, but please don’t lecture the rest of us about your adventure getting you closer to some ubiquitous “truth” of the past that the rest of us miss by not living the life of a bourgeois Victorian elite like you.

Cheers

Museum Exhibit Design 101: Keep it Simple, Stupid!

A few weeks ago my supervisor requested that I brainstorm some ideas for commemorating the National Park Service’s 99th birthday on August 25. The goal of this project–whatever form it might take–was to raise awareness of the agency’s ongoing Find Your Park campaign and spark enthusiasm about the Park Service’s past, present, and future as it approaches 100 years old.

I decided that creating a small, temporary museum exhibit in our Visitor’s Center could be an effective way of grabbing our visitors’ attention. I envisioned the exhibit playing out in three different phases: one focused on the origins of the National Park Service, one focused on the creation and restoration of our park (Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site) and one area dedicated to visitor feedback through an open-ended question and comment cards. With helpful input from my friend and colleague David Newmann we made the exhibit a reality. Although we don’t have exhibit design backgrounds and neither one of us ever created a museum exhibit from scratch before, we created what I think is a pretty neat display. I also learned an important lesson about keeping things simple when creating museum exhibits, especially if you’re looking to solicit feedback from visitors.

ULSG Exhibit 4

In the visitor feedback section of the exhibit I wanted visitors to reflect on their past experiences at National Parks and, by extension, use their memories and those of other commentors to think about their next adventure at a park. David came up with a great question for addressing this challenge: “What is your favorite memory at a National Park?”

We printed out small comment cards with the Find Your Park logo on them and wrote a one paragraph description explaining why we think National Parks are important. We put David’s question at the bottom of the page with this one paragraph description. It looked like this:

ULSG Exhibit 1

We noticed after a few days, however, that not a single visitor had taken the time to write a comment. Were people not interested in talking about National Parks or leaving comments at the exhibit?

It turns out that poor design on our part was wholly to blame for the lack of visitor feedback. David came up with a great idea to remedy this problem: simplify the design and give our question a prominent place within the exhibit. Make the question so big that you couldn’t avoid it.

ULSG Exhibit 2

Almost instantly after putting this sign up, we started getting feedback.

ULSG Exhibit 3

While it’s important to have an area on this table to explain why National Parks are important, we inhibited visitor interaction by writing our question in too small a font and burying it underneath a substantial body of text. Not everyone wants or needs to read such an explanation to understand what’s going on here. The question “What is your favorite memory at a National Park?” easily conveys what we want visitors to do. Putting the question front and center while leaving our explanation on the left side of the table allows for more visitor comments while also letting visitors who want to read further do so at their convenience.

So…keep it simple when designing museum exhibits!

Cheers

The Many Layers of Meaning in Cultural Symbols

Segregationists Protesting in Montgomery

Yesterday a reader of this blog asked some good questions about the malleability of cultural symbols in response to my last essay on two recent confederate flag demonstrations in the St. Louis area. My response ended up being pretty long and I want to share it again as its own individual post. I’ve made a few minor edits to the original comment for clarity’s sake. Some of the points I make will be familiar to regular readers, but they’re worth repeating again. As always, please contribute your voice to the discussion in the comments section if you feel so inclined.

***

Your statement[s] caught my attention because I’ve seen other historians arguing that there is only one correct and appropriate interpretation that can be applied to the Confederate Flag which is that all who display it are white supremacist racists. No exceptions, no contextual interpretation, and no questions asked to clear up the meaning of the usage. Their justification of their thought being that the only cause of the Civil War was slavery due to white supremacy.

I would like to pick your brain regarding their thoughts. Also, could you expand on your statement regarding the flag’s use symbolizing the perceived loss of freedom.

With regards to historians’ claims about the flag I would respond that there are a lot of historians out there, and it’s hard to make such a simplistic conclusion about their views. There will undoubtedly be a range of perspectives among scholars about the meaning of the Confederate flag and the intentions of those who wave it. Regarding scholars who are specially trained in 19th and 20th century U.S. history I think it’s unfair to suggest that they all believe the flag has only one meaning and that those who display it are all white supremacists, end of story. Take, for example, the historian Craig A. Warren’s recent book on the Rebel Yell, which tries to argue that Billy Idol’s famous song “Rebel Yell” (which he often played on a guitar with the Confederate flag on it) had nothing to do with the Rebel Yell of Confederate soldiers during the Civil War. That interpretation is not necessarily accepted by all historians, but it shows that historians can and do think quite a bit about the context in which these symbols are operating. The conversation historians are having about the flag is more nuanced and complex than how it’s been portrayed in popular media.

Cultural historians analyzing the historical role of Confederate iconography in American society have documented plenty of times when the Confederate flag was appropriated for uses in pop culture. Lynyrd Skynyrd concerts with Confederate flags on stage, Billy Idol’s aforementioned Confederate flag guitar, the General Lee in Dukes of Hazzard, and Ole Miss football games where fans flew Rebel flags are all examples of using the flag as a reappropriated cultural artifact. Did everyone who participated in these activities and wave a Confederate flag hold white supremacists views? I doubt it. The flag represented something different to these people.

The problem, however, is that the flag was simultaneously used and proudly waved as a political symbol to support pretty hateful governmental policies towards people of color throughout the 20th century. In this regard there is indeed a clear consensus among historians that white supremacists who supported Jim Crow laws, segregation, and the Ku Klux Klan waved the Confederate flag as a symbol of resistance and rebellion against the Civil Rights Movement and the federal government more broadly. This is not a controversial point and any rational person can do a brief google search and find images of people waving Confederate flags within this context during the CRM. Additionally, many of these same people embraced the Lost Cause interpretation of the Civil War, which downplayed the role of slavery as a cause of the war and argued that African American freedpeople were unfit for citizenship, voting rights, or political and social equality with white people in the years after the war. In this sense many of the people who used the Confederate flag as a symbol of resistance to the Civil Rights movement were doing it precisely because they had looked at their history books (many of which were written by historians at the time who accepted the basic premises of the Lost Cause) and had used their understanding of history to inform their opposition to the changes occurring in American society during the 1940s, 50s, and 60s.

This is why I tend to think that Confederate flag waving–especially within a political context–is reflective of individual and group perceptions that they are being told what to do by an oppressive government and that they are losing their freedoms and way of life. President Truman desegregates the military and supports anti-lynching bills in the late 1940s, thousands of activists in Mississippi react by protesting and waving Confederate flags. Nine black children attempt to desegregate Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, and they are greeted by adults waving Confederate flags around the campus. President Obama is our nation’s first black president and those opposed to his administration create signs that call for his impeachment but then feel the need to place those signs right next to a Confederate flag for added effect. Each of these events are part of a larger historical narrative of the Confederate flag’s use as a political symbol in support of white supremacy. The flag’s use for these purposes is a historical fact and we cannot escape that history, much as it might trouble some people who embrace the flag today.

So where does that leave us?

I think the historian Yoni Appelbaum is correct when he argues that the Confederate flag has a wide range of meanings in pop culture but that within a political context it has consistently represented the principles of white supremacy (although I acknowledge that the line between the two is sometimes blurry). Context matters.

Cultural symbols are flexible enough to have new meanings added to them over time, some of which might divert far from their original purpose (Kanye West’s wearing of the Confederate flag a few years ago is a noteworthy example). But those new meanings are like adding new layers to an onion – the old layers don’t go away because a new layer was added. If the onion’s core layer went away every time a new layer was added, it would cease to exist as such and become something else entirely. The messy history of the Confederacy and opposition to the Civil Rights Movement doesn’t go away because somebody waving the flag today was ignorant of that history or didn’t intend for that message to be sent to others. History is there whether or not you choose to acknowledge it. Those who choose to wave the Confederate flag today are free to do so if they want, but they must come to terms with our nation’s history and understand that there are potential consequences for waving it, one consequence being that many Americans today find it offensive. Free expression, regardless of context, doesn’t fully shield you from facing consequences for your beliefs. Indeed, one power of free expression is that it allows you to criticize views you disagree with. That point also needs to be acknowledged by those who expect to wave such a charged symbol without controversy or criticism. Ultimately, however, being considerate of how others feel about the flag is something we should all take seriously regardless of where we stand on this issue.