Get Out of Your Chair and Support Historic Preservation and Education in Your Community

I always said, blacks need to stop bringing up slavery all the time. It was a long time ago. Why can’t they just move on and forget about it? But then they wanted to move on and get rid of these confederate statues, and I was all like, “Things that happened a long time ago are still important. You shouldn’t forget about them!”

The above quote comes from a really funny piece of satire that a friend shared with me from The Push Pole, a website based out of Southern Louisiana. Its title seems apt for the times: “Thousands of History Buffs Magically Appear After City Council Votes to Remove Confederate Monuments.” The piece is funny because it’s rooted in a partial truth about the complex and contradictory ways Americans often choose to remember their history: “Never Forget” is an arbitrary term that extends to historical events and people we care about, but when it comes to historical things we consider to be overblown or simply not worth caring about, “we need to move on” becomes the default response. (See Andrew Joseph Pegoda’s essential essay on “Never Forget” for more thoughts on the subjective nature of the term).

The taking down or altering of some public statues, monuments, and memorials honoring the Confederacy sparked a vigorous debate in 2015 about the place of Confederate iconography in America’s commemorative landscape and whether or not some of these icons–particularly the ones in places of public governance, public schools, town squares, and the like–should remain in their place of honor. The online discussion took place through blog posts, newspaper op-eds, and thousands upon thousands of comments. While some of these discussions were productive and enlightening, we were also treated to excessive and misleading cries of “erasing history” (which is a flawed argument to take when analyzing public iconography), poor analogies that compared changes to Confederate iconography to ISIS-led destruction of Middle Eastern history, and emotion-filled hysterics that often said more about the politics of the present than any actual grasp of historical knowledge. And while folks got emotionally heated about Confederate icons, other historical artifacts such as this 19th century Virginia slave cabin are being demolished or in other cases facing potential demolition in the near future, all amid the sound of near silence on and offline.

What is the point of preserving symbolic icons that commemorate historic events and people if the actual historical artifacts that act as tangible representations of these events and people go away; things like letters, historic homes, battlefields, and other material artifacts? What would happen if some of that energy expended on debating iconography went towards preserving local history, Civil War battlefields, slave cabins, historic cemeteries, material artifacts, or archival records?

You and I can write blog posts or comment on newspaper articles until our fingers break off, but none of it really matters unless we get involved in our local communities and work towards convincing our neighbors of the importance of preserving history. Contact your local officials and tell them why public funding is important for ensuring a future grounded in an honest, responsible understanding of the past. Tell them to support historic preservation efforts in your area. Tell them that it’s important to support history education initiatives in the k-12 classroom such as National History Day and humanities programs in community colleges, four-year colleges, and universities. Tell them to support local institutions like historical societies, museums, and archival repositories. Join a preservation group like the Civil War Trust or the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Go visit a nearby National Historic Site. Attend a historical reenactment. Ask questions and be willing to listen and learn about the past, even if it’s difficult and unpleasant.

If you live in a community where a statue, monument, or memorial is currently garnering controversy, read up on relevant scholarship about the historical event being commemorated and why a symbolic icon was erected to preserve the memory of that event. Honestly consider whether or not that symbolic icon should remain in a place of honor in your community. If town hall meetings or other events are taking place about the history in your area, go to them. Listen to the perspective of other community members and express your own thoughts as well. Work towards becoming an active member of your community and an advocate for history.

If 2015 marks the beginning of a renewed conversation about history and memory in American society, let us use 2016 as a starting point for a renewed effort towards advancing the importance of supporting, preserving, and educating people about the history that is all around us. Get off the message boards and get to work in your community.

Cheers to a great new year.

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An Update on the Status of the St. Louis Confederate Monument

The Confederate Monument in Forest Park, St. Louis, Missouri. Photo Credit: KDSK http://www.ksdk.com/story/news/local/2015/04/22/stl-mayor-wants-to-rethink-confederate-statue/26164443/
The Confederate Monument in Forest Park, St. Louis, Missouri. Photo Credit: KDSK http://www.ksdk.com/story/news/local/2015/04/22/stl-mayor-wants-to-rethink-confederate-statue/26164443/

I hope readers have enjoyed the holidays in the company of loving friends and family.

As we wind down 2015–a year that current and future Civil War scholars will look back upon with much interest given all that has transpired with the nation’s commemorative landscape and Civil War memory–the St. Louis Post-Dispatch passes along news that the “St. Louis Confederate Monument Reappraisal Committee” has published a report on their investigation into the possibility of removing a historic monument dedicated to the Confederacy in downtown St. Louis and relocating it elsewhere. This effort was commissioned by St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay, who broached the topic in April with a blog post suggesting that it was “time for a reappraisal” of this monument and its place of honor in Forest Park, a popular destination in the downtown area.

I wrote about that monument and my own reservations about relocating it a few days after Mayor Slay’s original post. I still hold a lot of the reservations I expressed in that original post, but my thinking on this subject has evolved since that time. The possibility of a change to the monument’s interpretive text and/or a relocation seems much more politically feasible now compared to then, and I am more reconciled to the idea of a relocation although I’m not fully sold on it. The number of changes to Confederate iconography throughout the country since the Charleston Massacre in June has been nothing short of astounding. Whether or not you support these changes, all can admit that they’ve come fast and in bunches.

The committee’s report clocks in at twenty-five pages. Here were some of the big points it addressed and a few of my impressions after reading the entire report:

  • In the committee’s very short history of the monument they note that while the United Daughters of the Confederacy provided financial support for erecting the monument, there was “what have been reported to be years of political controversy” leading up to the monument’s dedication in 1914, suggesting that not everyone was on board with the messages it intended to convey at the time of its unveling. Unfortunately the committee provides no further details as to who complained about the monument or what they complained about. The committee also adds that amid the Civil Rights Movement in 1964 the Sons and Daughters of the Confederacy held a fiftieth anniversary re-dedication ceremony at the monument that highlighted the “many charitable works” of the SCV and UDC.
  • The committee solicited bids from contractors who could remove the monument from Forest Park. They estimate that the cost to dismantle the monument, move it to another site, prepare the new site for the monument, and re-erect it could cost as much as $268,580. Added to the financial challenge here is the Mayor’s request to use only private funds to remove the monument – no taxes. How would this process work and who would be willing to donate money to have the monument removed? The report does not tell us.
  • The committee reached out to a number of local institutions about submitting a proposal for receiving the monument. Although neither National Park Service site in St. Louis was contacted, numerous universities, cultural institutions, and Cavalry Cemetery were contacted. The committee requested that each institution, if interested, provide information within their proposal about the institution’s history, its primary audience and attendance numbers, educational programming, a budget for funding the monument, and a statement explaining why the organization would be an appropriate custodian for the monument. Every institution except for one declined to submit a proposal. An official with the University of Missouri-St. Louis left the most detailed response and stated that “I don’t believe that the sentiment of the faculty/staff would be favorable [to receiving the monument] and that the deliberations, in-and-of-themselves, may be divisive for the campus and our key stakeholders.” The monument is a political hot potato and they know it.
  • The relatively new and privately-owned Missouri Civil War Museum was the only institution to submit a proposal for the monument. The committee reported that the museum’s proposal offered to take full ownership of the monument at the City’s expense, but that said proposal “was incomplete and non-responsive to the RFP. The museum currently has no place at which it could display the monument. It informed the committee that it ‘is not interested in submitting any detailed plans of interpretation or exhibition of the monument’.” Indeed, a cursory glance at the proposal indicates that few of the committee’s questions were answered with any sort of detail. The tone of the letter leaves the impression that the museum believes it is doing the city and Mayor Slay a favor by relocating the monument to their facility. By allowing the transfer of the monument and all of its “social and political issues and problems” to the museum, they alone should have the right to determine budgetary and interpretive issues at their discretion without the city’s input.

The folks at the Missouri Civil War Museum are good people and their dedication to preserving historical artifacts related to Civil War history is unparalleled within the St. Louis area, but I don’t see this current proposal getting anywhere. I find it curious that the museum’s proposal asks for full ownership of the monument while simultaneously lacking any sort of detailed budgetary, educational, or exhibit plan. Given the relative newness of the museum and its expanding facilities I believe that at some future point the museum could be in a position to have an acceptable plan for housing the monument, but now does not seem to be the right time for such a transfer, and I get the impression that the committee feels the same way.

At this point there is a bigger question of community input that still needs to be figured out in this discussion before determining if and where the monument could be relocated or who might take ownership of it. So far the discussion has taken place entirely at the institutional level, from Mayor Slay’s blog post, to the formation of a monument committee, to the institutions that have been contacted about submitting proposals. Where do the perspectives of the St. Louis community fit into this conversation? Why not follow the example of other cities where town hall meetings and other community forums have been used to expand the conversation? While I respect the Missouri Civil War Museum’s work and appreciate their willingness to accept the monument, there are many stakeholders outside that museum’s realm who have not been heard through this process and–based on the language of the museum’s proposal asserting that all future decisions about the monument will be determined “entirely by our museum officials”–will not have a voice at the table under this proposal.

So…it appears that the committee report’s most useful insight is that no one knows what to do with this thing.

Cheers

A Brief Reminder About My Disclaimer and Comment Policy

On the Disclaimer page of this website I state that I reserve the right to moderate comments at my discretion. I operate this website as a private citizen and provide a comment section in the hope that others will join in fruitful conversation with me, but this site is not an unrestricted free-speech zone. If you say something insulting towards me or other people who leave comments, use vulgarities, or talk/rant about things that are completely off topic and irrelevant to the discussion at hand, I will delete that comment. This is my platform, and I am under no obligation to make it your platform.

This website has always been a place for discussing 19th century history, especially Civil War-related topics, but events related to the recent actions of institutions around the country to take down or alter Confederate iconography have aroused my interest as of late. I am not the only one discussing this topic. Emotions have been heated on all sides of the discussion, and I have attempted to look at issues of history and memory that this iconography sparks from the perspective of an educator and historian. I publicly supported the taking down of the Confederate flag from the South Carolina State House grounds back in June but have made no other declarations one way or the other regarding any other Confederate iconography. I have instead opted to talk about why these symbols are so charged, why they are now coming down even though this debate reaches back at least a hundred years in some cases, and what we can do to educate people about Civil War history moving forward. I have enjoyed conversing with readers here and elsewhere about these topics.

Mr. George Purvis, however, has made it his intention to comment on almost every Civil War-related essay I’ve penned over the past few months with false claims about Civil War history that have nothing to do with the discussions I’m trying to have and personal insults towards myself and others. See herehere, here, here, and here for examples. This behavior towards Civil War bloggers has happened elsewhere too. I have tried to be as respectful as possible towards Mr. Purvis and engage in discussion with him by providing links to reputable resources and by providing my understanding of history to the best of my ability using primary and secondary source documents. However, there have been a number of recent comments of his that I’ve opted to delete because it’s become apparent that it’s pointless to continue a prolonged debate with someone who will mischaracterize arguments, never listen to what you have to say with an honest ear, and will never be satisfied with what you have to say unless you adopt their position 100%.

Mr. Purvis, as is his right, has now opted to write about me on his blog. Back in October he maintained that I held “bigoted and biased views” because I demanded that he provide credible documentation proving the existence of tens of thousands of blacks who fought for the Confederacy. I’m still waiting for that proof. Now he is claiming that I am “protecting” other Civil War bloggers because I have deleted insulting comments of his that he attempted to direct towards them in the comments section of this blog. “I had some respect for Sacco as a decent fellow, I guess I judged him to [sic] quick,” he says.

He wouldn’t know, of course, that I’ve also deleted out of line comments directed towards him, but I suppose it’s easy to be portrayed as a singular victim of my political correctness or whatever.

He claims that he has consistently offered comments in a “factual civil manner, no insults” on this website and says that he will copy his comments towards me on his own website. Very well. But Mr. Purvis has not copied all of his comments in a faithful manner, and he has conveniently left out a number of disparaging comments, including this one directed towards friend and fellow blogger Al Mackey in response to the New Orleans City Council electing to take down four Confederate monuments within the city limits:

George Purvis Idiocy

Ah, yes. The NOLA Confederate Monuments are coming down thanks to “Black Supremacist [sic].”

Mr. Purvis and others are free to write whatever they want about me on their personal blogs and moderate their comment section as they deem fit. That is their right. While I think it’s unfortunate that lies and false claims about me are spread on the internet and now searchable on Google, there’s not much I can do about it. It’s a small price to pay for expressing my views publicly. But the same standards apply to my website, and I will not allow inappropriate comments to go through or waste time debating every ridiculous claim that gets thrown my way. It’s not avoiding debate so much as valuing my time and focusing on things I think are important and worth discussing. Mr. Purvis and anyone else is welcome to continue commenting in the future, but it’s worth repeating that commenting at Exploring the Past comes with boundaries that I set at my discretion.

I wish everyone a Merry Christmas/Happy Holidays, including Mr. Purvis.

Cheers

Addendum, 12/25/15: The day after this post went live, Mr. Purvis left a comment suggesting that it was none of my business to have an opinion about Confederate iconography/Civil War history and accused me of being an “agitator” full of “racism, bigotry and hate and ignorance.” (I believe he’s accusing me of demonstrating these behaviors towards white people or white Southerners, but his incoherence is hard to understand sometimes. Given that I live in a state with some Southern leanings and have numerous friends and family in the South, the charges are patently absurd). This comment is the tipping point for me, and he is now banned from commenting any further on this website. It’s unfortunate that I have to take this measure, but I feel I have no other options at this point lest I subject myself to more abuse. In trying to argue his point of view here and elsewhere, Mr. Purvis has consistently been his own worst enemy.

False Dichotomies and Slippery Slopes in the Confederate Iconography Debate

A few days ago the New Orleans City Council voted to take down four Confederate monuments that honor two Confederate generals, the president of the Confederacy, and a postwar battle in Louisiana where a white supremacist group temporarily overthrew a democratically-elected state government in 1874. As with other high profile Confederate statues, monuments, memorials, and flags that have been altered or taken down over the past six months, the comments section of the internet reacted with uncontrolled vitriolic anger over the City Council’s decision. And much to my surprise a number of my National Park Service colleagues from all parts of the country took to our Facebook employees page to complain about this alleged erasure of history by the forces of “political correctness.” It was…an interesting conversation to say the least.

One of the questions that emerged in the course of this conversation and elsewhere can be summarized as “where do we stop?” If we’re so anxious to take down everything connected to these racist Confederate slaveholders, then what’s stopping us from getting rid of all public iconography connected to other controversial figures in American history such as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Andrew Jackson? It’s a fair question to ask, but I think it sets us on a slippery slope towards a false dichotomy between leaving up all public iconography or tearing down everything regardless of context. I’ve seen arguments for both. A few people in the aforementioned conversation–most likely out of anger and hyperbole rather than deep-seated conviction–suggested that taking down the NOLA Confederate monuments means we should now take down everything from the Washington Monument to the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial. Conversely, there is a petition from the Civil War Trust floating around that calls for all Civil War war memorials and monuments to be preserved through federal legislation. The wording of this petition, however, opens a whole Pandora’s box of questions about what constitutes a Civil War memorial and whether or not all aspects of the Civil War are worth honoring. Neither one of these solutions is satisfying to me.

In a purely philosophical sense, the answer to “where do we stop?” is never. Revisionism is fundamental to history. Our commemorative landscape–just like our history books–will continue to change as long as we continue to uncover new documentary evidence, craft new interpretations of past events, and connect historical narratives to contemporary issues. There will never be a point in time when the possibility of a change to America’s commemorative landscape doesn’t exist. These changes are almost always not an act of “erasing history” so much as an act of reassessing prior understandings of an ever-evolving story.

A more practical answer to “where do we stop?” has to be determined by local communities and based on who and what they want to commemorate in a place of honor. There is simply no one-size-fits-all answer to the question.

That said, I have observed two frequently overlooked yet crucial distinctions in the Confederate iconography discussion that might expose us to some soft but useful boundaries to the “where do we stop?” question.

The first distinction relates to the location of the iconography in question. Jill Ogline Titus points out that there are Confederate monuments that “bear some imprimatur of state authority” based on their location at places of governance such as a state capitol or a government-run entity like a school, others that are more indirectly connected to state authority in places such as city parks or town squares, and still others that are on “historical ground” such as a Civil War battlefield. Most of the discussions I’ve observed about taking down or modifying Confederate iconography have focused on monuments and memorials in places of public governance because such a location implies that these symbols represent the values of the people in a given community. The same cannot be said about Confederate iconography on “historical ground” where something significant occurred; these symbols do not always imply a politicized connection to the values of local communities in a way that the naming of a school or a monument at a town square does. To use a non-Civil War example, there is a Soviet War Memorial in Berlin, Germany, at Treptower Park that commemorates the deaths of 5,000 Soviet soldiers who died in the Battle of Berlin towards the end of World War II. The memorial’s location implies that this is an important historical event that Berliners should remember and commemorate, but it does not suggest that the Soviet war effort or Josef Stalin’s brutal communist regime are connected to the values of German people today. It would be a very different situation, however, if a statue of Stalin was presently located at the Reichstag.

I’ve made a very fine distinction here, but it should reinforce that context matters and that a difference exists between a Confederate flag in front of the South Carolina State House and a Confederate flag on the grave of a Confederate soldier killed in battle; that a difference exists between a monument to Robert E. Lee in a New Orleans town square and a monument to Lee at the Gettysburg Battlefield.

The second distinction is that legacies of racism and slaveholding are not sufficient enough factors in explaining why Confederate iconography is under such scrutiny right now, although both play a significant part. If this conversation was purely focused on the merits of honoring racist slaveholders, then it would make sense to not only get rid of Confederate figures like Lee and Davis but also Washington, Jefferson, Jackson, and even people like Ben Franklin and Ulysses S. Grant who are not always remembered as slaveholders. But that isn’t how the process has worked out for the most part, save for a few protests against Jefferson. Roger Taney and Woodrow Wilson seem to be in trouble too.

I contend that the Confederate iconography debate is as much about the merits of honoring secessionists who embraced the cause of disunion as much as it’s about honoring racist slaveholders. Slavery and racism are inescapable elements of early American history, but numerous controversial figures from that era will continue to be honored well into the future partly because they are not associated with the cause of disunion. I don’t see the Jefferson Memorial or the Washington Monument coming down any time soon, even though they honor slaveholders. It appears that for those who have been most vocal about changing the commemorative landscape of the Civil War, it’s the legacies of racism, slaveholding, and disunion sentiment that have fostered heightened scrutiny of some Confederate iconography. George Washington symbolizes patriotism and loyalty to the United States. He never led a war effort to destroy that Union.

I think there are better questions to ask about America’s commemorative landscape going forward. Rather than asking “where do we stop?” I would rather focus on having honest discussions that allow us to analyze different monuments, statues, and memorials on an individual basis and then ask, “how can we use changes in commemorative landscapes to foster new and better understandings of the past?”

Cheers

Getting Ready for NCPH 2016

Challenging the Exclusive Past NCPH 2016

I have not been blogging as much as I typically do as of late. Part of the reason is simply the hustle and bustle of the holiday season, but I’ve also been working on a few projects for next year that I’m pretty excited about. One such project is my participation in the National Council on Public History’s Annual Meeting in Baltimore, Maryland, in March. This will be my third NCPH conference and I’m thrilled to be in the program again. I don’t have a lot of time or money to attend many conferences on an annual basis, but the NCPH meetings are totally worth it for the chance to meet and interact with some of the best scholars and practitioners in the public history field.

I was fortunate enough to be accepted as a discussant in a working group about race, violence, and protest in historical context. The description for our session is as follows:

“Interpreting the History of Race Riots and Racialized Mass Violence in the Age of ‘Black Lives Matter'”

The rise of the “Black Lives Matter” movement created new contexts for the public history of race riots and racialized mass violence of the past. This working group brings together practitioners involved in interpreting this historic theme. Our goal is to explore the impact of these new contemporary contexts through a sustained dialogue between public historians, community members, and activists, which will result in a sustainable, innovative, and collaborative project.

At this point I view myself contributing to the conversation from the perspective of an educator who often discusses racialized violence in the nineteenth century with visitors and–less often but more frequently in light of recent events–the complex politics of civil war memory today. More specifically, I hope to discuss some strategies I employed in talking about these topics with eight graders in the Ferguson-Florissant School District earlier this year – what worked, what didn’t, and what I’m thinking about as we prepare to work with the district again next May. Other presenters will be coming from a more academic and/or activist background, so the working group will be composed of thoughtful people with diverse skills and perspectives for discussing these topics. I’m looking forward to the conversation.

Stay tuned. Cheers.

Ulysses S. Grant on Interpreting the Constitution Through The Lens of Original Intent

With all of the debates we have about the proper method for interpreting the U.S. Constitution–both then and now–I find U.S. Grant’s perspective important and quite compelling. The following is one of my favorite quotes from him:

“The framers were wise in their generation and wanted to do the very best possible to secure their own liberty and independence, and that also of their descendants to the latest days. It is preposterous to suppose that the people of one generation can lay down the best and only rules of government for all who are to come after them, and under unforeseen contingencies. At the time of the framing of our constitution the only physical forces that had been subdued and made to serve man and do his labor, were the currents in the streams and in the air we breathe. Rude machinery, propelled by water power, had been invented; sails to propel ships upon the waters had been set to catch the passing breeze–but the application of steam to propel vessels against both wind and current, and machinery to do all manner of work had not been thought of. The instantaneous transmission of messages around the world by means of electricity would probably at that day have been attributed to witchcraft or a league with the Devil. Immaterial circumstances had changed as greatly as materials ones. We could not and ought not to be so rigidly bound by the rules laid down under circumstances so different for emergencies so utterly unanticipated. The fathers themselves would have been the first to declare that their prerogatives were not irrevocable.”

From Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant, Volume I, p. 220-221

Hope and History

"American Progress." Painting by John Gast, 1872. Photo Credit: Wikipedia
“American Progress.” Painting by John Gast, 1872. Photo Credit: Wikipedia

Since its release in July, Ta-Nehisi Coates’ book Between the World And Me has won a National Book Award and garnered international attention for its deep, thoughtful account of black life in America today. The book explores systematic racism and violence towards people of color, race as a socially constructed concept born through racism, and documents Coates’ own life journey as he discovers and experiences the vulnerabilities of his own body. Between the World and Me does explore some historical topics, but it’s primarily a work of literature; an invitation to learn about one person’s experiences, reflect on your own life circumstances, and possibly come to a better understanding of the world’s inner workings.

No book is fully shielded from criticism–and Between the World and Me is no exception–but one persistent and unfortunate critique is that Coates does not offer enough hope of a better future for his readers or provide a tangible solution for solving America’s racism. This argument fails to listen to Coates on his own terms and says more about the reader’s own feelings, desires, and preferred narratives than a true understanding of the substance of Between the World and Me. Indeed, such a critique is akin to knocking Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet because it doesn’t have a happy ending, Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men because it fails to portray the American West as a place where everyone enjoys prosperity and success, or Wiesel’s memoirs for not finding a solution to combat future acts of anti-semitism. There is also a political element to this “hopelessness” critique in that many of the people levying this charge believe that racism is a thing of the past, or at least an overblown distraction utilized mostly for political profit and not grounded in practical reality. Philosopher Andre Archie, for example, laments Coates’ politics as “hopeless” and asserts that “the status of blacks and their cultural products has risen so much that even the most dysfunctional aspects of black culture have been embraced by various segments of the white community,” whatever the hell that’s actually supposed to mean.

In a recent follow-up essay for The Atlantic Coates rightly asserts, in my opinion, that good art concerns itself more with enlightenment and understanding than making people feel good. Hope is merely one emotion in a spectrum of emotions that good art intends to highlight. To demand a happy conclusion and boundless hope at every corner is to demand immunity from the emotional hardships of life itself.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this idea of hope and how it relates to the ways historians think about and construct narratives of the past. In a post about popular misconceptions of the usefulness and purpose of history, University of Exeter professor Laura Sangha outlines three common takeaways from history:

  1. That history is a collection of facts and mostly feel-good stories about Kings, Presidents, and the natural progress of humanity.
  2. That history provides us with easily understood, tangible “lessons” that can allow us to avoid repeating past mistakes.
  3. That history can tell us “where we came from” and help us make sense of the present. (Sangha acknowledges that there is some truth in this claim, but that we often overstate the true value of history in explaining where we are today).

Each of these misconceptions is, in a way, reflective of a desire to turn history into a story that make us feel good. By assuming that there are lessons to be learned from history that help avoid past mistakes, we comfort ourselves with the idea that past hardships have been conquered and are of no concern to us today, and that this knowledge acts as a sort of bulletproof vest against future difficulties. “Slavery ended a long time ago!” says the person who fails to see that millions of people around the world remain enslaved today. By assuming that the stuff of history moves in a linear fashion towards upward human progress instead of in fits and starts and complex shapes, we run the risk of leaving out a great deal of hardship and humanity in the quest to create a feel-good narrative about the present. Again, it says more about us than it does the past. This is the fatal flaw of whiggish, nationalist histories (in both book form and through public iconography) that attempt to simplify past conflicts and frame the state and its heroic leaders as beacons of ever-growing, self-evident freedom for their people. Founding Fathers. Bill of Rights. Constitution. Thomas Jefferson. Liberty. Natural Rights. Sacrifice. ‘Murican history.

If the story of history is one of happiness and progress, however, then the action of any one person in a society becomes irrelevant because the state of humanity will improve regardless. It even becomes pointless to learn about history itself because the ending has already been written for you. But historical thinking has taught me that changes to a society over time require interpretation and explanation precisely because they don’t move forward in any uniform fashion. World War II happened only eighty years ago. Warfare, genocide, and slavery still exist. These things demand an explanation. Hopeful historical narratives make us feel good, but they don’t necessarily lead to enlightenment and understanding.

The late historian John Hope Franklin recalled an incident in the 1960s when he was asked by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights to compile a history of civil rights in the United States from the nation’s founding to the present. The commission expressed disappointment in the final product, however, because it was too hopeless a narrative for them. The commission, according to Franklin, had hoped for “a note of greater tolerance and moderation” that would highlight a heartwarming story of “negro progress” in American history. Franklin responded “I am afraid that I cannot ‘tidy up’ the history that Americans themselves have made.”

History is not about making us feel good – it’s about empathy, understanding, and respect for the complexities of our shared but ever-evolving humanity. There is beauty in this struggle, just as much as the joy in discovery. History helps us better appreciate both.

Cheers