A Monumental Discussion: James Broomall

Monumental-header

The current discussion about the removal of Confederate monuments has been largely framed around oppositional views. Social media has democratized a national discussion, which is a good thing, but has also filled Facebook, Twitter, and other fora with a range of deeply emotional reactions to the removal or maintenance of statues to former Confederate leaders or soldiers. That people would react so passionately should not be simply assumed but rather addressed within a cultural context about power dynamics in the public arena. This piece, therefore, will consider the importance of representation. 

Steven C. Dubin contends that representations of the past, or symbolic politics, have increasingly replaced realpolitik. In these contests different constituent groups have struggled to create overriding models of historical interpretation.[1] In the 1990s and early 2000s, for example, Civil War-era battlefields and historic sites witnessed a massive overhaul in interpretation as narratives finally included meaningful discussions of the war’s causes and consequences.[2] In the early 1990s, the Smithsonian Institute’s National Air and Space Museum famously pulled a proposed exhibit about the Enola Gay after sundry groups contested its interpretation and perspective.[3] Museums and historic sites matter so much because of the powerful narratives they propound.

Confederate monuments are material records of the past; primary sources that scholars such as Catherine Bishir have fruitfully interpreted.[4] In her account Bishir charges, “the creation of symbolic sculpture and architecture by the southern elite functioned as part of their reclamation of regional and national powers. As they placed monuments in prime civic spaces . . . these leaders spelled out chapter after chapter of a saga of patrician Anglo-Saxon continuity, of order, stability, and harmony.”[5] The monuments typically found in southern towns were primarily constructed during the Jim Crow era and served as powerful symbols of white supremacy and the Lost Cause. Without interpretive signage around modern monuments, however, vital historical context is often lost; further, no amount of interpretation can fully erase monuments’ lingering stigma. Accordingly, Confederate monuments have become deeply contested, if ambiguous spaces. For some they are symbols of hatred and for others emblems of heritage. In these dichotomous views we witness profoundly different readings of history. Indeed, as historian Edward Ayers has recently commented in an interview: “I think what these statues tell us is that people remember what they want to remember, and then they see what they want to see.”[6] Audiences’ open interpretations make difficult work for those educators, public historians, and academics seeking to historicize and contextualize Confederate monuments.

The stakes in the current monument debates are so high because visual and material representations are fundamentally about power—the power to transmit a message, convey an idea, or posit an opinion. For many Americans, monuments in their current form are transmitting the wrong message because they reify racism and inequality. Some have proposed, myself included, that additional monumentation, interpretive signage, and educational programming can allow these statues to relate stories about racial segregation, civil war, white supremacy, and the Lost Cause. Such additions have been slow in coming to some areas and ineffective in others (see Anne E. Marshall’s excellent op-ed in the Lexington Herald Leader on this problem) but also remarkably useful as seen in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia’s Heyward Shepherd monument, for example (which, it should be noted, is discursive text and not statuary).[7] Perhaps the time has now passed for these considerations at some places, while others may still seek some middle ground. The winds seem to be blowing in the direction of the former. Indeed, events literally are changing by the day. The early actions in New Orleans, Louisiana, the recent removals in Baltimore, Maryland, and the tragedies in Charlottesville, Virginia, suggest that Confederate monuments have become too inextricably linked to hatred to remain in public spaces. Perhaps no measure can change what the monument’s represent; or, despite the explicit meaning of these statues, they are simply open to too many interpretations to be properly contextualized. Regardless, the removal of monuments from the landscape, however morally justified, does foster a specific representation of the past and the actions of these cities are symbolic politics writ large. The preservationist in me would only urge that the monuments are documented in situ before removal, thereby providing a vital record for future researchers.

Although debates will likely continue, Charlottesville, Virginia, represented a collective turning point. Even Richmond, Virginia, which had posited the maintenance and interpretation of the city’s Confederate monuments, is now considering their removal. Many Americans now charge that these representations of the past are simply too painful and conjure too many emotions to remain on public display, at least as currently situated. With the tragedy in Charlottesville, hatred, bigotry, and violence have destroyed any renewed attempt at civil discourse in the public space of the shared, albeit morally flawed, American experience.

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[1] Steven C. Dubin, Displays of Power: Controversy in the American Museum from the Enola Gay to Sensation (New York: New York University Press, 1999), 2.

[2] Dwight T. Pitcaithley, “‘A Cosmic Threat’: The National Park Service Addresses the Causes of the American Civil War,” in Slavery and Public History: The Tough Stuff of American Memory eds. James Oliver Horton and Lois E. Horton (New York: The New Press, 2006), 171.

[3] For a concise overview of this debate see, “Controversy over the Enola Gay Exhibition,” Atomic Heritage Foundation, http://www.atomicheritage.org/history/controversy-over-enola-gay-exhibition [accessed 17 August 2017].

[4] See, Catherine W. Bishir, “Landmarks of Power: Building a Southern Past, 1885-1915,” reprinted in Southern Cultures: The Fifteenth Anniversary Reader, eds. Harry Watson and Larry J. Griffin (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2008).

[5] Bishir, “Landmarks of Power,” 54

[6] PBS News Hour, Interview with Edward Ayers, “The Shifting History of Confederate Monuments,” http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/shifting-history-confederate-monuments/ [accessed 16 August 2017].

[7] Anne E. Marshall, “Historian on ‘Confederate Kentucky:’ Time to remove the statues,” Lexington Herald Leader, http://www.kentucky.com/opinion/op-ed/article167643757.html [accessed 17 August 2017].

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3 Responses to A Monumental Discussion: James Broomall

  1. Meg Groeling says:

    Thanks for the link to the Enola Gay controversy. Reading about other times this has been an issue is helpful, at least for me.

  2. Pingback: Monumental Discussion: Chris Mackowski | Emerging Civil War

  3. Pingback: ECW Week in Review 14-20 August | Emerging Civil War

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